China users targeted on banned social media sites 

Rights advocates warn that Chinese netizens on X and YouTube face a backlash from Beijing

Rights advocates are urging international social media platforms to do more to prevent Chinese authorities from obtaining the personal information of users. 

The call comes after two popular Chinese social media influencers alleged on X, formerly known as Twitter, and YouTube that police in China were investigating their followers and had called some in for questioning.

Social media platforms such as X and YouTube and thousands of websites – from The New York Times to the BBC and Voice of America – are blocked in China by the country’s Great Firewall. 

But increasingly, even as social controls tighten under the leadership of Xi Jinping, many in China are using virtual private networks to access X, YouTube and other sites for news, information and opinions not available in the country.

Li Ying, who is also known online as Teacher Li, is one of the social media influencers who issued the warning at the weekend. 

He came to prominence as a source of news and information following a rare display of public dissent in 2022, protesting Beijing’s draconian zero-Covid policy. 

Online censors

His account on X has now become a hub for news and videos provided by netizens that the Chinese government considers sensitive and censors online. In a post, Teacher Li said:

Currently, the public security bureau is checking my 1.6 million followers and people in the comments, one by one.

Li shared screenshots of private messages he received from followers over the past few months, some of which claimed that police had interrogated individuals, even causing one person to lose their job.

VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of the claims.

But court records in China and reports by rights groups have previously documented the country’s increasing use of banned social media platforms to detain, prosecute and sentence individuals over comments made online.

I-Soon documents revealed China’s cyber reach. Image: Screenshot / YouTube

The Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said he was not aware of the specifics regarding the social media influencers.

“As a principle, the Chinese government manages internet-related affairs according to law and regulation,” he said.

News of the crackdown on followers of social influencers comes amid a flurry of reports about China’s hacking capabilities. Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that cyberattacks on United States infrastructure were “at a scale greater than we’d seen before.”

A document dump detailed how private companies are helping China to hack foreign governments across Southeast Asia and to unmask users of foreign social media accounts.

Wang Zhi’an, a former journalist at China’s state broadcaster CCTV who has a million subscribers on X and 1.2 million followers on YouTube, confirmed they have reported similar problems.

In response, both Wang and Teacher Li have urged netizens to take precautions, suggesting they unfollow their accounts, change their usernames, avoid Chinese-made phones and prepare to be questioned.

Tracking followers

Earlier this week, Li’s followers on X had dropped to 1.4 million. VOA reached out to him for comment but did not receive a response as of publication.

Maya Wang, the acting China director at Human Rights Watch, said Beijing has increased policing platforms based outside of the country. It comes as more Chinese people move to the sites to speak out.

She said the reports of authorities tracking down followers are just a part of China’s long-standing effort to restrict freedom of expression and added:

I think the Chinese government is also increasingly worried about the information that is being propagated, transmitted or distributed on these foreign platforms because they have been, thanks to these individuals, very influential.

A leak of documents from I-Soon, a cybersecurity firm linked to China’s top security agency, described tools used by Beijing to curb dissent on overseas social media. They include creating surveillance users on X.

Flagging up China’s surveillance operation. Photo: Xinhua

Hackers also created tools for the security services to spy on emails and unmask anonymous users of X, the documents showed. The leak revealed that officers sometimes sent requests to surveil specific individuals to I-Soon.

Wang felt it was incumbent on social media companies to make sure their users stay safe and added:

I would want to direct these questions to Twitter [X] to ask – are they adopting heightened measures to protect PRC [People’s Republic of China]-based users? 

“I think Twitter [X] needs to investigate just how exactly this kind of information is being obtained and whether or not they need to plug some loopholes,” she stressed.

Hacking activities

Yaqiu Wang, a research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, said that besides better protecting their users’ privacy, the companies should also put in more effort to combat China’s clampdown on freedom of speech, adding:

They should [take] steps to help activists to protect their freedom of speech. Big social media companies should widely disseminate information to their users, like a manual or instructions of how to protect their accounts.

“They need to be more transparent, so users and the public know whether government-sponsored hacking activities are going on,” she said.

VOA reached out to X several times for comment but did not receive any response by the time of publication.

Adrianna Zhang is a producer at Voice of AmericaXiao Yu also contributed to this report.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.