When Chen picked up his phone to express his anger at getting a parking ticket, his message on WeChat was just a drop in the ocean of daily posts on China’s largest social network.
But soon after his tirade against “simple-minded” traffic cops in June, he found himself in the tentacles of the communist country’s all-knowing surveillance apparatus.
Chen quickly deleted the post, but officers tracked it down and detained it within hours, accusing it of “insulting the police.”
He was locked up for five days for “inappropriate comments”.
His case – one of thousands recorded by a dissident and reported by local media – laid bare the pervasive surveillance that characterizes life in China today.
Its leaders have long adopted an authoritarian approach to social control.
But since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he has harnessed the relatively free social currents of the turn of the century, using a combination of technology, law and ideology to stifle dissent and deter threats to his rule. .
Ostensibly targeting criminals and aimed at protecting order, social controls have backfired on dissidents, activists and religious minorities, as well as ordinary people – like Chen – on trial for crossing the line.
The average Chinese citizen now spends almost every moment under the watchful eye of the state.
Research firm Comparitech estimates that the average Chinese city has more than 370 security cameras per 1,000 people, making it the most heavily monitored places in the world, compared to 13 in London or 18 per 1,000 in Singapore.
The national “Skynet” urban surveillance project has exploded, with cameras capable of recognizing faces, clothing and age.
“We are being watched all the time,” an environmental activist told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Communist Party’s grip is strongest in the far western region of Xinjiang, where facial recognition and DNA harvesting have been deployed on mainly Muslim minorities in the name of fighting terrorism.
The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted China’s surveillance framework, with citizens now being tracked on their smartphones via an app that determines where they can go based on green, yellow or red codes.
Regulations put in place since 2012 have closed loopholes that allowed people to buy SIM cards without giving their name and made government identification mandatory for tickets on virtually all modes of transportation.
There is no respite online, where even shopping apps require registration with a phone number linked to an identification document.
Wang, a Chinese dissident speaking to AFP under a pseudonym for security reasons, recalled a time before Xi when censors were unaware and “telling jokes about (former Chinese president) Jiang Zemin on The internet was actually very popular.”
But the Chinese internet – behind the “Great Firewall” since the early 2000s – has become an increasingly guarded space.
Wang runs a Twitter account that tracks thousands of cases of people detained, fined or punished for speech acts since 2013.
Thanks to the real-name verification system as well as cooperation between the police and social media platforms, people have been punished for a wide range of online offenses.
Platforms such as Weibo employ thousands of content moderators and automatically block politically sensitive keywords, such as the name of tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a senior politician of sexual assault last year .
Cyberspace authorities are proposing new rules that would require platforms to monitor comment sections on posts – one of the last ways people can air their grievances online.
Many of the surveillance technologies used have been adopted in other countries.
“The real difference in China is the lack of independent and civil society media capable of meaningfully critiquing innovations or pointing out their many flaws,” Jeremy Daum, of Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, told AFP. Law School.
Xi reshaped Chinese society, with the Communist Party stipulating what citizens “should know, feel, think, say and do”, Vivienne Shue, professor emeritus of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Beijing, told AFP. Oxford.
Young people are kept away from foreign influences, with authorities banning international books and banning tutoring companies from hiring foreign teachers.
Ideological policing has even spread to fashion, with TV stations censoring men’s tattoos and earrings.
“What bothers me the most is not the censorship itself, but how it has shaped people’s ideologies,” said Wang, owner of the Twitter account.
“With the elimination of dissenting information, every website becomes a cult, where government and leaders are to be worshipped.”