Twitter is officially banned in China, but several million Chinese still use it, a situation the Communist tyranny is addressing by throwing Twitter users in jail, threatening their families, and deleting their tweets.
According to a New York Times report on Thursday, the Chinese government has confronted dissident citizens with their tweets during brutal interrogations and has either hacked Twitter or pressured the social media platform into complying with its censorship requests.
The Times pointed out that Beijing might prohibit the use of Twitter by its tightly controlled populace, but the government itself is highly active on the platform, maintaining Twitter accounts for government offices and state-run media outlets.
China’s rogue Twitter enthusiasts have discovered to their sorrow that the government’s massive censorship apparatus monitors the microblogging platform obsessively and tends to be aware of what dissident citizens are Tweeting. Tweets and posts from other banned platforms like WhatsApp are appearing in the hands of prosecutors and interrogators.
Chinese users with both large and small followings have been abducted by state operatives and subjected to both physical abuse and psychological torment:
Interviews with nine Twitter users questioned by the police and a review of a recording of a four-hour interrogation found a similar pattern: The police would produce printouts of tweets and advise users to delete either the specific messages or their entire accounts. Officers would often complain about posts that were critical of the Chinese government or that specifically mentioned [Chinese President Xi Jinping].
The police have used threats and, sometimes, physical restraints, according to Twitter users who were questioned. Huang Chengcheng, an activist with more than 8,000 Twitter followers, said his hands and feet were manacled to a chair while he was interrogated for eight hours in Chongqing. When the inquiry was over, he signed a promise to stay off Twitter.
Those pulled in for questioning do not necessarily have the biggest presence on the social network. Pan Xidian, a 47-year-old construction company employee in Xiamen with about 4,000 followers, posted a comic by a dissident cartoonist known as Rebel Pepper, along with criticism of human-rights crackdowns. In November, the police called him in for 20 hours of questioning. After being forced to delete several tweets, he was allowed to go, and he thought his ordeal was over.
But officers showed up at his workplace a short time later and threw him into a car. They asked him to sign a document that said he had disturbed the social order. He complied. Then they showed him a second document, which said he would be detained. He spent the next two weeks in a cell with 10 other people, watching propaganda videos.
Several observers told the Times this Twitter crackdown is one of the most extensive operations the authoritarian Chinese government has ever conducted against Internet users, involving both local and national agencies.
In addition to abusing its own citizens, the Times report included substantial evidence that the Chinese government is employing “sharp power” to pressure Western social media companies like Twitter and LinkedIn to obey its censorship demands. The ability of Communist Party enforces to make thousands of Tweets instantly disappear from the platform is suspicious, although the NYT generously allowed that it could be the work of Chinese government hackers, a resource the Chinese government endlessly insists it does not have.
Radio Free Asia interviewed several Chinese human rights activists in December who said their Twitter accounts were mysteriously manipulated without their involvement, in addition to some who reported police interrogators intimidating them into deleting Tweets and closing their accounts. Some of them speculated the government was able to hack their Twitter accounts by remotely manipulating their smartphone, which could be taken as more evidence that allowing Chinese telecom companies to get involved in Western cellular network projects is dangerous.
The Washington Post noted last week that Chinese censors are going “old school” on Twitter users, moving away from a policy of quietly monitoring those who make use of banned platforms and shifting to direct physical action. There have been at least 40 documented instances since the crackdown began of Chinese authorities “pressuring users to delete Tweets through a decidedly low-tech method: showing up at their doorsteps.”
The Post saw the crackdown as a response to Twitter’s growing popularity among Chinese dissidents as authorized social media platforms are locked down tightly:
Bankrupt mom-and-pop investors fume about the lack of financial regulations. Disgruntled farmers pass around videos of land seizures or police thuggery. Muslims from China’s far west share pictures of loved ones locked away in state-operated reeducation centers.
It has started to resemble the freewheeling Twitterscape in other tightly controlled nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
And to the Chinese Communist Party, that means it is a rising threat.
“Twitter is the fastest, simplest, most important gathering place if you care about Chinese politics. It’s extremely hot right now,” said Ho Pin, the New York-based publisher of the Mirredia Group, a leading purveyor of sensitive Chinese political news.
One reason Twitter has become popular among both earnest activists and disgruntled working stiffs is that censorship on permitted platforms like Weibo is largely automated and pre-emptive. Forbidden words, such as the names of important dissidents and purged Communist officials or keywords for popular causes, are instantly deleted from posts.
The Chinese censorship efforts against Twitter reported by the New York Times are alarming, but they pale in comparison to what the government can do with the Chinese platforms it directly controls. It is the difference between making conversation impossible and tracking down the conversants later to punish them – a difference measured in days which become eons at the speed of the Internet.
The Washington Post found China’s censors particularly eager to suppress forbidden discussion of the tottering economy, which some of the analysts quoted in the article thought could be the real reason behind the abrupt, ham-fisted Twitter crackdown. Controlling a massive financial system with deep systemic problems is a form of information warfare, in which a small but determined user base communicating on an unregulated platform could become a squadron of stealth bombers.