Covid-19 protests: Chinese police use cellphone networks to track protesters


According to a recording of a phone call between a protester and police heard by CNN, Chinese authorities are using cellphone data to track protesters who have been demonstrating against the government’s tight Covid restrictions in Beijing.

Hundreds of protesters rallied by Beijing’s Liangma River on Sunday night, demanding an end to incessant Covid testing and lockdowns. Some also condemned censorship and called for more political freedoms.

The extraordinary demonstration of dissent in the heart of the Chinese capital ended largely peacefully in the early hours of Monday. But some protesters have since received calls from police inquiring about their participation.

A protester told CNN he received a call from a police officer on Wednesday who revealed he was being followed because his cellphone signal was recorded near the protest site.

CNN does not name any of the protesters in this story to protect them from reprisals.

According to a recording of the phone call overheard by CNN, the protester was asked if he went to the Liangma River on Sunday night. When they declined to be there, the caller asked, “Then why did your cell phone number show up there?”

In China, all mobile phone users are required by law to register their real name and national identification number with telecom operators.

The protester was also told to report to a police station for questioning and sign a written report. When they asked why they had to comply, the caller said it was “an order from the Beijing City Public Security Bureau,” according to the record.

CNN has reached out to the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau for comment.

Some protesters took precautions not to be followed or identified. A protester told CNN she kept her phone on airplane mode during the demonstration and had not been contacted by police as of Thursday afternoon.

As China protests over local grievances, the current wave of demonstrations is unprecedented since the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, launching a sweeping crackdown on dissenters and building a high-tech surveillance state.

China’s security apparatus acted swiftly this week to quell mass protests sweeping the country, maintaining a heavy police presence in places where crowds had or planned to gather over the weekend.

In Shanghai, where some of the boldest protests have taken place and crowds have demanded Xi’s removal for two consecutive nights, police scoured residents’ cellphones on the streets and on the subway for virtual private networks (VPNs) that can be used to bypass China’s internet firewall, or apps like Twitter and Telegram, which while banned in the country, have been used by protesters.

Police also confiscated cellphones from arrested protesters, according to two protesters who spoke to CNN.

A protester arrested over the weekend said he was told to give his phone and password to police as “evidence”.

They said they feared police would export the data on their phone after it was confiscated by officers who told them they could pick it up a week later.

Another protester said police returned her phone after she was released, but officers deleted the photo album and removed the WeChat social media app.

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