OPINION: This article contains commentary which may reflect the author's opinion
The Chinese government and military are mining social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, in order to gather sensitive information about Western targets for their military, police, and government entities in China.
According to reports by the Washington Post, which reviewed bidding documents and contracts for more than 300 Chinese government projects since the early 2020s, the Chinese government has purchased newer and more advanced data surveillance systems in order to gather information about foreign entities.
There are documents in the public domain that reveal the purchase of software for the Chinese state media, costing $320,000 US dollars. Its purpose is to create a database of foreign journalists and academics through social media mining.
Additionally, China’s government has also purchased a $216,000 Beijing police intelligence system that targets Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as a Xinjiang cyber center that catalogs Uyghur language content as it is distributed overseas.
The Central Propaganda Department in China’s Ministry of Public Information has revealed that the software will allow the country’s state to ‘better understand the underground network of anti-China personnel.’
There is also activity going on to establish a network of real-time signaling systems that will alert the nation’s leaders to trends that could undermine or threaten the national interest.
In pursuance of a wider goal of refining its efforts to refine foreign propaganda, China has been using its internal surveillance system to collect information on certain western targets.
It has been revealed in Chinese government documents obtained by the newspaper that the police and propaganda departments will be purchasing and maintaining online accounts registered overseas on behalf of the Chinese government.
Additionally, a variety of purchases were made, ranging from small, automated software applications to large, expensive projects. As part of its budget, the state is also going to budget for 24-hour staffing, including English speakers and foreign policy experts.
Among the highly customizable programs are some that are used to collect real-time data from individuals using social media, while some of them track broad trends, such as those of the US elections in the past few years.
‘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,’ the China Daily stated in a bidding document for a ‘foreign personnel analysis platform.’ The state-backed newspaper bid $300,000 for the platform.
‘We are competing with the US and Western media, the battle for the right to speak has begun,’ the document continued.
In the specification was also information on a program that would mine Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for data on so-called well-known media journalists from Western countries and other public figures belonging to political, business, and media circles.
In order to analyze the results, the program will automatically collect and store real-time data from Chinese servers.
Both Twitter and Facebook have prohibited this type of data collection in their privacy policies unless prior permission is given.
‘Our API provides real-time access to public data and Tweets only, not private information. We prohibit use of our API for surveillance purposes, as per our developer policy and terms,’ an official from Twitter relayed to the Post.
People with intimate knowledge of the software as well as China’s domestic opinion network have described China’s efforts as “terrifying” and, in their view, indicate just how strongly the government feels about battling public opinion.
‘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,’ said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan public policy think tank, German Marshall Fund.
‘It really shows that they now feel it’s their responsibility to defend China overseas and fight the public opinion war overseas.’
It is important to note that the Chinese systems for analyzing domestic public opinion online are a key element of President Xi Jinping’s initiative to modernize the country’s ‘propaganda apparatus and maintain control over the Internet.’
Government officials will have access to the huge quantity of data collected and monitored, which will be helpful to them in understanding public opinion, as well as providing support and supervision to the nation’s censorship apparatus.
Beijing argues that monitoring and analysis are essential to its ‘public opinion guidance work,’ which aims at shaping public opinion in favor of Beijing through censorship and propaganda targeting specific audiences.
China started its public opinion campaign in 1989 in response to the pro-democracy demonstrations held on Tiananmen Square.
Despite the fact that the exact scope of the nation’s public opinion monitoring network is unknown, a government-sponsored paper reported in 2014 that more than 2 million people worked as public opinion analysts across the nation.
One government-sponsored media outlet published an article in 2018 that claimed the industry was worth ‘tens of billions of yuan’, which has an approximate value of some billions of dollars. Furthermore, the official claimed that the industry is growing at a rate of 50 percent a year.
Twitter has declared that 23,000 accounts linked to the Chinese Communist Party have been suspended as of June 2020.
Apparently, these accounts were using covert tactics to undermine pro-democracy protests taking place in Hong Kong, according to the platform.
Twitter reported that as of the end of December 2021, it had deleted a further 2,048 accounts related to Beijing and its propaganda efforts.
In the eyes of many experts, these accounts represent just a small portion of Chinese-run accounts.