China steps up checks for people bypassing the ‘Great Firewall’

Police are stopping people in public and checking their phones for apps used to get around censorship.
By Qian Lang for RFA Mandarin
China steps up checks for people bypassing the ‘Great Firewall’ Commuters browse their smartphones as they ride on a subway train in Hong Kong on Feb. 7, 2023.
(Andy Wong/AP)

Police in China are stepping up spot searches of people’s phones for apps enabling them to bypass the Great Firewall of government internet censorship, residents told Radio Free Asia in recent interviews.

A resident of the southwestern province of Sichuan who gave only the surname Huang for fear of reprisals said he had recently been stopped on the subway in the provincial capital, Chengdu.

“This happened to me in Chengdu,” Huang said. “A police officer stopped me on the subway and wanted to check my phone, but I didn't allow him to.”

“I told him he had no law enforcement powers and he let it go,” he said.

Chinese authorities have stepped up spot checking operations on the streets and on public transport in the years since the “white paper” protest movement of 2022, which the government blamed on infiltration by “foreign forces,” and have been forcing people to download an “anti-fraud” app that monitors their phone usage, according to recent interviews.

Huang said he has also seen police checking people’s phones on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing.

A screenshot of an SMS alert from the Hubei provincial police department warning a phone user to stop using circumvention tools to get around China’s Great Firewall. (RFA)

A resident of the northeastern province of Jilin who gave only the surname Zhang for fear of reprisals said police have been stepping up similar checks where he lives.

“You have to be very clandestine to get around the Great Firewall,” Zhang said. “Circumvention tools and viewing overseas websites are not allowed.”

“Generally speaking, nobody dares to post photos that have come from outside the Great Firewall to WeChat,” he said. “If you do, your account will be blocked.”

He said anyone who gets hauled in to “drink tea” with the feared state security police will have their phone checked as a matter of routine, meaning that people need to delete such software or reset to factory settings to avoid discovery.

He said that while some uncensored content occasionally gets through, there isn’t as much as before the current crackdown.

According to Huang, the current crackdown was sparked by the “white paper” protests, after which the authorities have targeted university students to crack down on people going “over the wall” to get content that hasn’t been censored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

‘You have to be especially careful’

A mobile phone repair specialist in the southern province of Guangdong who declined to be named for fear of reprisals said the police-approved “anti-fraud” app can also detect the presence of circumvention tools on any phone where it has been installed.

“As long as your phone has the anti-fraud app installed, they will know what you are doing,” she said.

“You have to be especially careful now if you want to get around the Wall.”

A screenshot provided by a resident of the central province of Hubei showed an SMS alert from the provincial police department warning them that circumvention software had been detected on their phone, in violation of the Online Security Law.

People hold white sheets of paper during a protest over COVID-19 restrictions after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, in Beijing, Nov. 28, 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The user was ordered to cease and desist or report to the local police station, on pain of further “enforcement measures,” according to the text message.

According to the X citizen journalist account “Mr Li is not your teacher,” a student at the School of Electronic Information and Computer Engineering at Sichuan’s Institute of Industrial Technology was recently disciplined for “ignoring online security regulations” and using software to bypass the Great Firewall on many occasions between Feb. 29 and March 11, according to a photo of the school’s disciplinary announcement.

They had accessed content on overseas websites and reposted it to two WeChat groups, which “violates the school’s student regulations,” the notice said.

The student was given a warning under the college’s disciplinary code, it said.

Last month, China’s state security police started combing through the account’s follower list and putting pressure on people living in China to unfollow it, the journalist reported.

China’s Cyberspace Administration has also been stepping up its campaign to remove unapproved content from Chinese social media platforms, reporting that it revoked the licenses of more than 10,000 websites in 2023, and hauled in more than 10,000 “for interviews.”

The websites were being targeted for “spreading false information, incitement of confrontation and other harmful content,” state news agency Xinhua reported on Jan. 31.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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