Authorities scour private chats on messaging apps for blacklisted words, sensitive images.
PUYANG, China—Eva Dou reports: One night this September, construction supervisor Chen Shouli fired off a joke in a chat group.
“Haha,” he typed on his black iPhone 7, followed by an off-color wisecrack about a rumored love triangle involving a celebrity and one of China’s most senior government officials.
Four days later, he says, the police telephoned, ordering him in for questioning.
“I thought, I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? I’m law-abiding,” recalls Mr. Chen, a wiry 41-year-old. “So I went in. Once I arrived, they wouldn’t let me leave.”
Mr. Chen was locked in a cell for five days, he says. According to the police report, his comment on the WeChat messaging app was deemed “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a broad offense that encompasses gang fighting and destruction of public property and is punishable by detention without trial.
In China’s swiftly evolving new world of state surveillance, there are fewer and fewer private spaces. Authorities who once had to use informants to find out what people said in private now rely on a vast web of new technology. They can identify citizens as they walk down the street, monitor their online behavior and snoop on cellphone messaging apps to identify suspected malcontents.
Years ago, in the Mao Zedong era, people were sent to prison, labor camps and death for opinions expressed in private. In the decades since China launched economic reforms after Mao’s death, prosperity and social mobility created room for more personal freedom and expression. Now China appears to be reverting to old form, empowered by new digital surveillance tools.
That means ordinary people such as Mr. Chen increasingly find themselves investigated and punished for imprudent comments they thought were private. It is now easy for a regular citizen to step over the brink, with a stray comment to family or friends screenshotted into evidence, without the need for an informant … (read more)