When Chen picked up the phone to vent his anger at getting a parking ticket, his message on WeChat was a drop in the bucket of daily posts on China’s largest social network.
But soon after his tirade against “simple” traffic cops in June, he found himself in the tentacles of the communist country’s omniscient surveillance apparatus.
Chen quickly deleted the post, but officers located him and arrested him within hours, accusing him of “insulting the police.”
He was jailed for five days for “inappropriate speech.”
His case – one of thousands logged by a dissident and reported by local media – exposed the pervasive surveillance that characterizes life in China today.
Its leaders have long taken an authoritarian approach to social control.
But since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has reined in the relatively free-running social currents of the turn of the century, using a combination of technology, law and ideology to quell dissent and forestall threats to his rule.
Social controls ostensibly aimed at criminals and protecting order have been aimed at dissidents, activists and religious minorities, as well as ordinary people – like Chen – who are believed to have crossed the line.
– eyes to the sky –
The average Chinese citizen today spends almost every waking moment under the watchful eye of the state.
Research firm Comparitech estimates that the average Chinese city has more than 370 surveillance cameras per 1,000 people – making them among the best-surveilled places in the world – compared to 13 in London or 18 per 1,000 in Singapore.
The nationwide city surveillance project “Skynet” has exploded with cameras that can recognize faces, clothing and ages.
“We’re being watched all the time,” an environmental activist, who asked not to be identified, told AFP.
The Communist Party’s grip is most evident in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where facial recognition and DNA collection have been used in the name of counter-terrorism among mainly Muslim minorities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has supercharged China’s surveillance framework, with citizens now being tracked on their smartphones via an app that uses green, yellow or red codes to determine where to go.
Regulations introduced since 2012 closed loopholes that allowed people to buy SIM cards without giving their names and required official identification for tickets for virtually all modes of transport.
– Online Crimes –
There is no rest on the Internet, because even shopping apps require registration with a phone number linked to an identity document.
Wang, a Chinese dissident who spoke to AFP under a pseudonym for security reasons, recalled a time before Xi when censors weren’t omniscient and “telling jokes about (former Chinese president) Jiang Zemin on the internet was actually very popular was”.
But the Chinese Internet – behind the “Great Firewall” since the early 2000s – has become an increasingly monitored space.
Wang runs a Twitter account that tracks thousands of cases of people who have been arrested, fined or fined for speaking acts since 2013.
Thanks to the real name verification system, as well as cooperation between police and social media platforms, people have been punished for a variety of online crimes.
Platforms like Weibo employ thousands of content moderators and automatically block politically sensitive keywords, like tennis star Peng Shuai’s name after she accused a high-ranking politician of sexual assault last year.
Cyberspace authorities are proposing new rules that would force platforms to monitor comment sections on posts – one of the last ways for people to voice their grievances online.
– Ideological Policing –
Many of the surveillance technologies used have been adopted in other countries.
“The real difference in China is the lack of an independent media and civil society able to meaningfully critique innovation or point out its many flaws,” Jeremy Daum of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School told AFP.
Xi has transformed Chinese society with the Communist Party dictating what citizens “should know, feel, think, say and do,” Vivienne Shue, professor emeritus of contemporary Chinese studies at Oxford University, told AFP.
Teens are kept away from foreign influences as authorities ban international books and prohibit tutoring companies from hiring foreign teachers.
Ideological surveillance has even extended to fashion, with television networks censoring tattoos and earrings on men.
“What bothers me more is not the censorship itself, but how it has shaped people’s ideology,” said Wang, the owner of the Twitter account.
“When dissenting information is eliminated, every website becomes a cult in which the government and leaders must be worshipped.”