Twitter users in China face detention in new Beijing online censorship crackdown

Twitter users in China face detention in new Beijing online censorship crackdown

Chinese police, in a sharp escalation of the country’s online censorship efforts, are questioning and detaining a growing number of Twitter users even though the social media platform is blocked in China and the vast majority of people in the country cannot see it. China has long policed what its citizens can see and say, including online, but the latest push shows that Beijing’s vision of internet control encompasses social media around the world. “On the other hand, ordinary Chinese are risking interrogation and jail for using these same platforms to communicate with each other and the outside world.” Twitter is not the only platform contending with China’s censorship rules. In a statement, LinkedIn apologized for taking the accounts down and said it had done so by accident. With Twitter, Chinese officials are targeting a vibrant platform for Chinese activists. Interviews with nine Twitter users questioned by police and a review of a recording of a four-hour interrogation found a similar pattern: Police would produce printouts of tweets and advise users to delete either the specific messages or their entire accounts. In November, police called him in for 20 hours of questioning. Several Twitter users said local authorities had specifically cited the internet police, a branch of the security ministry that monitors online activity. Police have impressed upon activists that they can see posts outside China’s wall of censorship. “Delete all your tweets, and shut down your account,” the officer said.

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  • People work at an online data processing center, in Nangong, China. Chinese authorities are using harsh methods to target people posting criticism of the government on Twitter, extending online censorship beyond China’s borders.

    THE NEW YORK TIMES / 2018

SHANGHAI >> One man spent 15 days in a detention center. Police threatened another’s family. A third was chained to a chair for eight hours of interrogation.

Their offense: posting on Twitter.

Chinese police, in a sharp escalation of the country’s online censorship efforts, are questioning and detaining a growing number of Twitter users even though the social media platform is blocked in China and the vast majority of people in the country cannot see it.

The crackdown is the latest front in President Xi Jinping’s campaign to expand the government’s suppression of internet activity beyond China’s borders. In effect, authorities are extending their control over Chinese citizens’ online lives no matter where they post.

“If we give up Twitter, we are losing one of our last places to speak,” said Wang Aizhong, a human-rights activist who said police had told him to delete messages criticizing the Chinese government.

When Beijing is unable to get activists to delete tweets, others will sometimes do the job for them. Wang refused to take down his tweets. Then, one night last month while he was reading a book, his phone buzzed with text messages from Twitter that contained backup codes to his account.

An hour later, he said, 3,000 of his tweets had been deleted. He blamed government-affiliated hackers, although those who were responsible and the methods they used could not be independently confirmed.

A Twitter spokeswoman declined to comment on the government campaign.

China has long policed what its citizens can see and say, including online, but the latest push shows that Beijing’s vision of internet control encompasses social media around the world. Messages on WhatsApp, which is blocked in China, have begun to appear as evidence in Chinese trials.

The Chinese government has increasingly demanded that Google and Facebook take down content that officials object to even though both companies’ sites are inaccessible in China. After exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui used the platforms to lob graft accusations at top Chinese leaders, Facebook and Twitter suspended his accounts temporarily, citing user complaints and the disclosure of personal information. Guo is now back on the platforms.

Twitter may be banned in China, but the platform plays an important role in the discussion of issues in the country. A small but active community uses software to circumvent the government’s blocks to reach a last refuge of political debate. According to an estimate based on a survey of 1,627 Chinese internet users last year by Daniela Stockmann, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Germany, only 0.4 percent of China’s internet users, roughly 3.2 million people, use Twitter.

In addition, official media outlets like the Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily newspaper and the Xinhua news agency use Twitter to shape perceptions of China in the rest of the world.

“On the one hand, state media takes advantage of the full features of these platforms to reach millions of people,” said Sarah Cook, a senior analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group based in the United States. “On the other hand, ordinary Chinese are risking interrogation and jail for using these same platforms to communicate with…

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