Communist China is now redirecting a big portion of its internal Internet data surveillance network externally. The regime is scraping data on social media targets, such as Facebook and Twitter. The data is then fed to its police, government agencies, and the military.
The Chinese government is known to maintain an extensive network of data surveillance agencies, originally intended to scan domestic networks and pick up information deemed to be politically sensitive. An extensive review of Chinese government contracts by the Washington Post revealed that orders were made for high-end software engineered to accrue data on Western targets from mainstream social media platforms.
To put things in perspective, one of the software programs acquired by the Chinese government is a $300,000 “foreign personnel analysis platform” that mines data from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to build profiles on high profile journalists and top academics in the West as well as “key personnel from political, business, and media circles.”
WaPo believes these surveillance operations are part of a bigger plan aimed at helping Beijing refine foreign propaganda through artificial intelligence and big data. Additionally, there would also be a network of warning systems designed to report on online trends that could potentially undermine the interests of the Chinese government.
The WaPo review comes during rising tensions between the U.S. and China over a number of issues. Most recently, in late December last year, U.S. President Biden signed an official ban on goods from the Xinjiang province where widespread human rights violations against Uighur Muslims have been reported.
Biden had also announced its diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Beijing next month as a sign of protest against the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress dissent in Hong Kong.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has allegedly placed the analysis of domestic public opinion online as a top priority. Beijing’s policy to control public opinion could be traced back to the communist regime’s response to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. As per a statement provided by a state-run newspaper in 2014, at least two million people were serving as public opinion analysts.
According to the WaPo report, the Chinese government is invested in the purchase and maintenance of western social media accounts that will operate on behalf of the police and propaganda department. The government is also bearing the cost of staffing these operations, buying small automated programs, and executing large-scale projects that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Operations are staffed on a 24×7 basis.
“On the back of the Sino-US trade talks and the Hong Kong rioting incident, it’s becoming clearer day by day that the public opinion news war is arduous and necessary. We are competing with the U.S. and Western media, the battle for the right to speak has begun,” state-backed newspaper China Daily was quoted as having stated in a 2020 bidding document.
The foreign personnel analysis platform will reportedly collect data automatically and store it in real-time on Chinese servers for designated officials to review. Incidentally, both Twitter and Facebook do not allow this kind of data collection without prior authorization.
In response to the Washington Post review, Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund said, “They are now reorienting part of that effort outward, and I think that’s frankly terrifying, looking at the sheer numbers and sheer scale that this has taken inside China. It really shows that they now feel it’s their responsibility to defend China overseas and fight the public opinion war overseas.”