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The Danger of AI Collaboration With China

Matthew Robertson, October 11, 2018

 

AI, Cambricon-1A.png

 

China’s rapidly expanding interest in researching and applying artificial intelligence has been widely noted. Last year, the Chinese government published a plan to become a world leader in the field by the end of the next decade; billions of dollars are being funnelled into AI startups; and China is competing head-to-head with industry in the United States on the cutting edge of the field.

What makes AI developments in China so different from those in the United States, however, is that as with any technology, if it can be used by the Chinese Communist Party to strengthen its grip on power or further its panoptistate, it will.

This is almost a truism, of course, and military adoption of new technologies applies just as well to the U.S.

The real difference is that in China, exploitation of new technologies is almost always attendant with human rights abuses. The area of AI may end up becoming a particularly grim demonstration of this principle, if current trajectories continue.

And researchers from the West may have already given China a significant helping hand. Witness the case of the French research institute Inria’s (French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and in particular its assistance in developing the technology underpinning one of China’s AI ‘unicorns,’ Cambricon (寒武纪).

Cambricon, the company featured in Science’s February 2018 profile of the burgeoning AI sector in China, was supported and spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology (中科院计算所). Their flagship AI chip, the Cambricon-1A, hit the market last year and has been incorporated into Huawei smartphones, among other products.

It was one of Inria’s researchers, Olivier Temam, who was instrumental in helping to lay the technical foundations of Cambricon’s breakthroughs.

“Cambricon’s founding team came from academia, and I myself was a professor and doctoral tutor at the Computing Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences,” writes Chen Tianshi (陈天石), Cambricon’s co-founder and CEO. He goes on to thank Inria and and long-time academic collaborators Chen Yunji (陈云霁) and Olivier Temam.

Temam’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a senior research scientist at Inria from September 2004 to May 2014.

The three — Chen Tianshi, Chen Yunji, and Olivier Temam — have collaborated on a dozen journal and conference papers, including many that won best paper awards. With names like “DianNao: A Small-Footprint High-Throughput Accelerator for Ubiquitous Machine-Learning” and “ShiDianNao: Shifting Vision Processing Closer to the Sensor.”

It is papers like this that underlie innovations in AI chip development that Cambrion built its company on.

The chip architecture has another highly useful feature for China’s security authorities: use in image recognition systems for filtering and processing the bucketloads of data collected by the Communist Party’s pervasive surveillance apparatus.

VOA quoted a Cambricon employee in June 2018 commenting on a provider of surveillance cameras to the Party, Hikvision:

“A staff member at Cambricon, another Chinese company that provides the government technical support for security needs, told VOA that major video surveillance companies in the Chinese market are working with the government and that government authorities can access the information from any company at any time.”

The engineer remarked that surveillance technology, in attempting to identify ethnic minorities, might “consider beards, facial, and head accessories.”

There is as yet, at least as far as China Change could discover, no public evidence that Cambricon’s chips have been used to drive surveillance technologies.

Its chips, however, have been listed as among those that Hikvision could make easy recourse to.

Chinese tech websites have also listed “public security surveillance” (安防监控) as among the capabilities of the Cambricon-1A and 1H8 chips.

When the subject is reported in the Chinese media, surveillance technology is just another one of the potentially lucrative uses that Cambricon can exploit, alongside self-driving cars and cloud computing.

Along with Inria, MIT has also begun collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company whose AI technologies are being deployed by the security apparatus.

“Authorities are collaborating with iFlytek, a Chinese company that produces 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in the country, to develop a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an October 2017 report.

HRW shows clearly how iFlytek has marketed the security uses of its technology, including deep relationships with official entities that have helped the authorities build the Golden Shield Project, one of the key components of China’s surveillance apparatus.

The MIT relationship with iFlytek was announced in June 2018.

Olivier Temam did not respond to an email requesting comment. Since July 2018 he has worked at Google — a somewhat ironic move given the context.

Under the guidance of Google’s former AI chief, Fei-Fei Li (李飞飞), the company opened an AI lab in China. Aside from meeting Google’s own research needs, the institution will without doubt also help fertilize China’s own AI ambitions and talent.

Li, born in Beijing in 1976, immigrated to the United States at 16 and went on to gain a BS from Princeton and a PhD from Caltech. She was appointed as AI leader and Chief Scientist at Google while on sabbatical from Stanford where she was a full professor, and while there became among the most outspoken opponents of Google cooperating with the Pentagon.

“Weaponized AI is probably one of the most sensitized topics of AI — if not THE most. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Li wrote in an internal email seen by The New York Times.

But Silicon Valley, for one reason or another, does not seem to be as intent on opposing all forms of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and its appurtenances.

Google recently discontinued its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, saying that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles,” but it has shown no qualms developing the Dragonfly search engine, in cooperation with the Chinese government, which would aid the official internet censorship regime. Meanwhile, Google has been recommending security keys manufactured by a Chinese company that has deep ties with the PLA and government.

 

 

Matthew Robertson is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He was previously a translator and editor with China Change.

 


Related:

Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’, Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018.

 


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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

 

Signs of China (1)

China Change, September 16, 2018

 

Unsettling news from China has been emerging in a constant stream for some time now, in news, on social media and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much to do with China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change today inaugurates a new, regular series titled ‘Signs of China,’ where we catalogue and contextualize what might otherwise have been forgotten as ephemera. What are these signs pointing to? Our discerning readers will know. — The Editors

 

Sign series 1, 卸磨杀驴

Kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill (卸磨杀驴).

 

Urgent Call to Watch ‘Operation Thunder 2018’

According to a variety of sources brought to social media by netizens, Chinese authorities sent out an urgent notice on September 14 to work units, companies, government departments, universities and more, across the country, demanding people to watch the September 15 nightly Network News Broadcast (《新闻联播》) on CCTV, as well as CCTV’s September 15 and 16 “Focus Talk” (《焦点访谈》) programs, and also the detailed reports due to be published on September 16 on Global Times online, as well as its the September 17 print edition. This hurried propaganda scramble is called ‘Operation Thunder 2018’ (2018-雷霆行动), and is an anti-espionage operation focused on ‘exposing Taiwanese spies.’ As state media reports, it’s about “increasing the anti-traitor and spy-prevention consciousness of the entire population, preventing online phishing and other harms to national interests and security,” as well as “firming up… the national security People’s Line of Defense.” At the same time, a similar Weibo announcement by Yibin Cable Television in Sichuan Province was censored. (More links on the operation are available here.)

Those familiar with the workings of Chinese Communist Party propaganda will recognize that yet another mass terror campaign is likely in the offing. 

Is the Private Sector Still Safe? 

Recently, a certain Wu Xiaoping (吴小平), self-identified as a “senior finance figure,” published a mere five paragraph article that has attracted significant attention. In it, Wu writes that “private companies would be ill-advised to continue blindly expanding; a completely new state of public-private mixed economic control — more centralized, more united, at a larger scale — will become an increasingly important part of the economy in the future,” and also that “the private sector in China has already completed its task of assisting state sector economic development, and it should now gradually diminish in importance.” His article argues that “in a battle between superpowers, China must concentrate its financial, material, and human resources, and must follow a planned development strategy.”

As might be expected, the article caused an uproar. Some observers suspected that it represented a trial balloon by Party Central; others thought the author was a nobody attempting to guess at what the higher-ups in the regime would like to hear, and curry favor by making the suggestion; while still others thought he was communicating the coded message that private enterprise should try to save themselves while they still had the chance. The independent historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡), based in Beijing, posed the question on Twitter as to whether the authorities were going to “kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill.” The original essay was subsequently refuted by the People’s Daily, and appears to have been purged from domestic Chinese websites.

Whatever the case, the CCP’s plans of asserting control over private companies are already well underway. According to economist He Qinglian’s (何清涟) analysis of a key set of ‘Guiding Opinions’ about state-owned enterprise reform promulgated in 2015, private enterprises in China are going to be the main target for SOE reform. She wrote that the Chinese authorities hope to roll out a ‘mixed ownership system,’ in which “private companies can make cash purchases of shares in SOEs and become shareholders. But since the equity allocation ratio is based on the state-owned capital being the controlling party, private companies can only remain in a subordinate role, without any decision-making power or right to a say in matters.”

On September 16, the Chairman of the National Laboratory for Finance & Development (中国国家金融与发展实验室) Li Yang (李扬), speaking at an academic forum commemorating the beginning of reform and opening up in China, pointed out that as the economy declines, private companies will come under enormous pressure. Their “way to save themselves is to find a state-owned company as an ‘umbrella,’ and if they don’t do that they can’t get financing, and they can’t lower their costs. If they do that, the enterprise will survive, profits will be there, and employment will be maintained. It’s an outcome that should leave everyone satisfied.” Li Yang thinks that such a scenario would be an opportunity for state companies to buy out their private enterprise counterparts.

Over the past few years the CCP has already been hard at work establishing Party cells in private companies in order to exert control. If anything, the outsize reaction this short article received is a telling indication of how anxious and insecure the Chinese public feels about this trend intensifying.

Xinjiang University Professors Sent to Concentration Camps

sign series 1, uighur professors

Left, Professor Arslan Abdulla; right, Professor Abdukerim Rahman.

News continues to emerge of Uighur academics in Xinjiang being sent to the re-education camps. Twitter user @Uyghurspeaker tweeted in both English and Chinese from a Radio Free Asia report that “Personnel from Xinjiang University’s Overall Management Command have verified that the dean of the humanities department, Professor Arslan Abdulla (the former director of the consultative office of the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) as well as Professor Abdukerim Rahman have been sent to re-education camps ‘for the same reason’ that Rahile Dawut (a folklore scholar) was. Rumors say that at least 56 professors and teachers at the university have been taken away.”

Professor Duwat, the scholar of Uighur folklore at Xinjiang University, disappeared last December and has not been heard from since. No one knows why.

Apple Hurts the Feelings of the 1.4 Billion Chinese People

Apple held its new product launch in California on Wednesday (September 12), with Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, unveiling the new model of iPhones as well as when and where they’d first be sold. The background screen prepared for the event showed the individual flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and used the flag of the Republic of China for the latter.

Predictably, the China Youth League and Global Times immediately began expressing their displeasure, accusing Apple of having a double standard: “Apple, what are you trying to say here in your press event?” and “Given that you can put ‘United States’ before ‘Virgin Islands’ in order to differentiate it from the British Virgin Islands, why don’t you put ‘China’ before ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Taiwan’?” Some Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of Apple phones and other products.

Following the public displays of contrition from Marriott and Mercedes Benz for similar grave insults, will Apple also apologize for hurting the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people?

Uneasy Disappearance of a Popular Website

Letscorp.net, going by the Chinese name 墙外楼, which translates literally as ‘Over the Wall,’ is a popular Chinese news aggregation website, primarily focused on maintaining an archive of the news, posts, and commentaries that are censored inside China. The website uses RSS and mail subscriptions to propagate its content. Its Twitter handle, @letscorp, has been around for nearly eight years, and it boasts over 70,000 followers. Most of the time the Twitter handle has simply pushed out new content from the letscorp website automatically, but over the last year or so, the actual person behind the account has also become opinionated. He or she appears to be an astute observer of Chinese politics and society. Because of the website’s name (‘Over the Wall’), most everyone (including China Change editors) took it for granted that whoever runs the site lives outside of China.

Beginning on September 5, however, Chinese Twitter users noticed that the @letscorp account had stopped tweeting, that the website was down, and newsletters were no longer going out, and concerned users now feared that the website operator, likely based in China, had been identified by the authorities. “In the future, it will be more and more difficult to get valuable Chinese-language content even outside of China,” one Twitter user lamented.

We at China Change can’t help imagining the scene of that person being taken away, probably from his or her home, though we may never know, in the end, what has happened. Many Chinese Twitter accounts have similarly disappeared over the past few years. We recently subtitled and re-published a video of six police in Shenzhen forcing their way into the home of a young woman in the middle of the night simply for what she’d posted on social media.

Activist Barred From Traveling by Train

Ms. He Peirong, from Nanjing, is a Chinese activist who became very well-known during the Free Chen Guangcheng movement in 2012. Over the last few years she has been working on various public interest projects. On September 13 she tweeted out: “My liberty has been severely restricted; I can’t go out to buy train tickets, I can’t travel where I want in China. No department has officially notified me as to why I’ve been restricted and who is punishing me. I was preparing to travel to Shanghai yesterday, but only at the train station did I find out that I couldn’t purchase a ticket. I want to know which level of government made this decision. What is the legal basis for it?”

The ‘legal basis,’ it turned out, is likely China Railway’s May 1, 2018 policy of restricting the travel rights of individuals who have ‘seriously breached trust’ (《限制铁路旅客运输领域严重失信人购买车票管理办法》). It seems that Ms. He is now also marked as such an individual.

This and other incidents of the like are yet another indication of how the Chinese authorities appear to be planning to impose sweeping limitations on personal liberty as they deploy the national ‘social credit system.’

Cellphone Inspections in Hangzhou 

We made a mention of this elsewhere before but would like to draw your attention to it again: a Twitter user witnessed police in a Hangzhou subway station checking citizens’ cellphones. Similar incidents were reported in Beijing too. It looks like the Chinese government is conducting a trial of this practice in cities. The amended Police Law expected to pass during the Two Sessions in March 2019 will make such searches legal and therefore a common practice.

Date and time: August 23, 2018, 3:55 p.m.;

Location: Safety check at the entrance of the No. 1 Line subway at the Fengqi Road station, Hangzhou (杭州地铁1号线凤起路站); [the police were] checking the phone of every passenger waiting in line to enter the station;

Apparatus: They were using handheld scanning equipment;

The number of police: 6 to 7.

Crackdown on Christians

In Henan, the government has been conducting an intense crackdown on Christians, burning/removing crosses and dispersing congregations, forcing believers to sign pledges to quit the church, or closing down churches altogether (here, here, here, here). On September 9, the largest house church in Beijing, Beijing Zion Church, was shut down by the authorities who said it was not registered and “disrupted the order of civil organization management.”

Zion Church’s pastor, Jin Mingri (金明日), told Voice of America that religious repression has intensified since the 19th Party Congress. After the Congress (held in October 2017), the government has gone about strengthening both ideological and managerial control in all sectors of society. Then again after the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing in March of this year, there were further changes, in particular in religious policy.

Overall, the new policies indicate a shift from tolerating some non-official denominations of Christianity to heavily restricting them, as a greater number of religious populations are seen as ideological competitors to the Party, or even hostile forces.

Xu Zhiyong, in response to a video of burning cross, wrote on Twitter addressing the Party: “What wrong has Christianity done to you? You’ll suffer retribution for this! In this life, in this world, it will come to pass. On many occasions making a curse is the only weapon of the weak. If the curses are sufficient in number and people lose heart, the retribution will then arrive.”

10th National Assembly of Representatives of Overseas Chinese and Relatives is Held

A major convocation of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese returnees and their families, was held in Beijing from August 29 to September 1. It must have been a significant event for all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee to attend the opening ceremony. State media highlighted the fact that nearly 1,300 returnees from over 110 countries, as well as 700 (still) overseas Chinese, attended. Zhao Leji (赵乐际, China’s anti-corruption chief) made remarks that included this memorable exhortation for overseas Chinese: “Always remember [how] the Party and the People have entrusted you; spread good news about China; assist the development of the fatherland; safeguard the virtue of the Chinese people; promulgate Chinese culture; make new contributions to the realization of the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese people and promote the construction of a Community of Shared Human Destiny.”

Observers should not think of statements like this as mere empty rhetoric — the Chinese government’s ability and readiness to organize, mobilize, and use overseas Chinese has reached an impressive level of scale and sophistication. For instance, following the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, the Chinese Embassy-controlled Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Harvard University, as well as a number of Hometown Associations on both coasts, organized discussion forums. In 2016, when the ethnically-Chinese police officer Peter Liang was being sentenced in New York City, the mass protest of Chinese and Chinese-Americans was suspected of having been at least in part mobilized by Communist Party agents, according to WeChat communications. And the Party’s Federation of Overseas Chinese, which operates on all levels of the government, regularly award membership in its “Overseas Chinese Committee” (海外委员会) to overseas Chinese who are in important positions in Western society, including many American university professors and scientists. China Change previously reported on the case of the Wellesley professor Charles Bu serving on one such commission.

Professor Xu Zhangrun, Author of Famous Lament, Forced to Return to China Early 

The author of the widely celebrated, lengthy reflection on the parlous state of affairs in contemporary Chinese political life published in July, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), was recently called back to China early from his visiting professorship in Japan. Rong Jian (荣剑), another Chinese scholar, saw Xu in Japan on September 7 and reported that Xu told him that “he was forced to go back on the 14th of the month.”

Xu’s essay, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,’ a portion of which was translated by China Change, and translated in its entirety by Geremie Barmé, was the subject of widespread public discussion in China and abroad, and was featured in a New York Times article for capturing the essence of concerns about China’s current political direction.

 

 


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At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

 

Video: Six Policemen Came to the Home of a Young Woman at Night and Seized Her for Interrogation [Subtitled]

China Change, August 28, 2018

 

 

This 3-minute video has gone viral on Twitter the last couple of days. It’s not a movie; it’s an everyday reality in China that’s seldom captured on record. We, as many people do, know it’s a commonality, but the video somehow sends chills down the spine.

The video emerged on Twitter on August 26. The event supposedly occurred late night on August 23 in Shenzhen, and the police came from Shajing police station (沙井派出所) for this young woman named Chen Guixiang. She’s an average Chinese, not an activist or a dissident. She posted or said something online, and the police arrived to take her to the station for an interrogation.

It appears that she knew they were coming — it’s likely that she had already resisted prior orders from the police. She set up a hidden cellphone and recorded the scene.

On Monday, a reporter from Voice of America’s Chinese service called Shajing police station in Shenzhen. A woman officer who answered the phone said she didn’t know about the incident, and a male officer huffed at the reporter, telling him that it was “ridiculous” to call the police station.

China Change has uploaded the video and provided English-language subtitles. Below is a transcription in English:

[Woman] What’s going on??
[Police] Take your ID out.
[Police] We’re coming in to look around a bit.
[Woman] I don’t have my ID here.
[Police] What’s your name?
[Police] What is your identification number?
[Woman says her name; inaudible]
[Police] You’re the one we’re looking for.
[Woman] Why are you coming to my home this late? What’s going on?
[Police] You come with us and we’ll discuss it.
[Woman] Why should I?
[Police] Because we’re the police.
[Woman] So just like that you can take people away for no reason?
[Police] Yeah — so what?
[Woman] Do you have any identification?
[Police] What ID do you want?
[Woman] Or an arrest warrant??
[Police] We’re not arresting you now, we just want to have a chat, OK?
[Police] We want you to come to the station with us.
[Woman] On what basis?
[Police] On what basis? We’ll tell you in the station.
[Woman] I need the reason now.
[Police] I don’t have to tell you now.
[Woman] So why would I go with you?
[Police] So do you think the three of us can’t take you away?
[Woman] You’re illegally entering a citizen’s residence!
[Police] This isn’t illegal.
[Woman] Then show me proof of this, I’ll take a look.
[Police] What kind of evidence do we need?
[Police, largely inaudible] We’ll take you to the police station and show you, no problem.
[Woman] Why do you want to interrogate me? I haven’t broken any law.
[Police] So what were you up to online?
[Woman] What I was doing online??
[Police; inaudible]
[Police] What did you post online?
[Woman] What did I post? I didn’t post anything.
[Police] You didn’t publish anything? Then come with us.
[Woman] Why should I?
[Police] How dare you!? [and says her name, which is inaudible]
[Police mumbling, shouting]: ‘Cooperate, cooperate!’
[Woman] How can you just come in like that?
[Police shouts] Are you gonna cooperate or not?
[Police inaudible; demands she cooperate; says they’re going to take her away.]
[Police shouts] Either you come with us or we’ll force you!
[Woman] What is going on here?
[Police crosstalk] Just cooperate. We’re doing an investigation.
[Woman] I didn’t break the law!
[Police interrupts] You’re not the one who decides whether you broke the law!
[Police] What nonsense did you write online?
[Woman] So many of you breaking into my home…
[Police] Take her away!
[Police] Don’t reason with her!
[Police directs his colleague to drag her out]
[Woman] All of you breaking into the house of a woman, what’s going on here?
[Police] Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
[Woman] What are you doing?!
[Woman] What is this? How can you do this?
[Woman] I have absolutely no sense of safety.
[Woman] Why?
[Woman] You’re breaking the law!
[Woman] This is against the law.
[Police] We’re enforcing the law, not breaking the law.
[Police] I hope you’ll cooperate with our investigation.

 

 


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Google Recommends Product From a Chinese Company with Communist Party and Military Ties for its ‘Advanced Protection Program’

Matthew Robertson, August 23, 2018

 

“Our goal is to make sure that any user facing an increased risk of online attacks enrolls in the Advanced Protection Program.”  Dario Salice, Advanced Protection Product Manager at Google. 

 

 

Google recommends security keys

“The Feitian key wirelessly communicates with your smartphone to authenticate the login.”

 

Journalists and dissidents involved in Chinese affairs are accustomed to every so often receiving a pop-up banner on their Gmail from Google informing them that “state-sponsored attackers” may have been attempting to gain access to their accounts. To guard against such intrusions, Google suggests signing up for its Advanced Protection Program.

The Advanced Protection Program involves using a pair of security keys that can be purchased on Amazon. The problem? Google recommends a product — the Feitian MultiPass FIDO Security Key — manufactured in China, by a Chinese company that is part of an “IT-Military Alliance” with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Its chief of research and development of over 16 years is a former member of the PLA. And it does the vast majority of its business selling security hardware to Chinese state banks.

Google unveiled its Advanced Protection Program in October 2017 as reported by The New York Times. But the report did not explore the extensive relationships between the Chinese supplier, Beijing Feitian Chengxin Technology Co., Ltd., and the Chinese government.

FullSizeRender

Security keys like the Feitian MultiPass are an implementation of public key cryptography — the most well known version of which is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) — in hardware form. They are a form of two-factor authentication that allow an individual with the key and the password to access an account; if either is missing, access is denied. The introduction of hardware to the security equation makes access safe from phishing, social engineering, and even attacks on cell phones that intercept temporary security keys sent via SMS.

It is unclear how feasible it may be for Chinese intelligence and military actors to install a backdoor in or otherwise compromise the hardware. But if the hardware manufacturer is mobbed up with one of the most sophisticated offensive cyber actors in the world, the “world’s worst abuser of internet freedom” according to Freedom House, and a country where a private company can never say no to government demand, the question arises: Can it be safe?

China Change examined security filings, advertisements, periodicals, and media reports to build a mosaic of the interlocking relationships between Chinese state organs and Feitian Chengxin (飞天诚信股份有限公司). The image that emerges does not appear encouraging for the computer security of Chinese dissidents and others who may be using the product.

Company founding

Feitian was set up by four friends, three of whom were 1992 computer science graduates of Northern Jiaotong University (now Beijing Jiaotong University 北京交通大学): among them Huang Yu (黄煜), the current chairman, Li Wei (李伟), the general manager, and Lu Zhou (陆舟) their chief engineer.[1] Han Xuefeng (韩雪峰), a middle-school friend of Huang Yu, was recruited from a computer job in the Ministry of Railways to form the company with them. The four continue to own the majority of the company’s shares.[2]

Feitian 1, four founders

The four founders of the company after it went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on June 26, 2014. Huang Yu and Li Wei (in that order) are on the right, while Lu Zhou and Han Xuefeng stand on the left.

 

The company was founded in 1998 at the beginning of a technology and internet boom in China. It has since become “the No.1 supplier of user authentication and transaction security for China Online Banking,” according to its website, employing 850 staff and serving thousands of businesses in 100 countries.[3]

As Feitian grew, so too did its ties to official China. By 2015, the conference room in its main Beijing campus had a wall full of awards and certifications from Chinese government departments.[4]

Dominance in the state bank market

The foundation of Feitian’s business in China has been in providing security fobs to state banks.

Lucrative contracts with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (the country’s largest) and China Merchants Bank were its first major orders in 2003, though it sat lower down in the food chain at that point, only able to operate as the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for another brand.

Later the company was certified by the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank,[5] and by 2005 was doing business with banks directly — including China CITIC Bank — not merely as an OEM.[6]

By 2014, 85% of the company’s revenue was coming from state banks, and Feitian was among the top three such vendors by revenue in the country.[7]

State information security a ‘precious business opportunity’

In 2003 the company joined the “IT-Military Alliance” (计算机世界科技拥军联盟) upon its founding. The event was hosted by the Network Infrastructure Department of the PLA’s General Armaments Department, along with other official organizations.

Only 12 companies formed the IT-Military Alliance. The founding ceremony was marketed as an opportunity for industry to present tribute to the PLA in celebration of the 76th year since its founding. Feitian notes on its website that “the head of the General Armaments Department expressed a deep interest in Feitian’s products,” and that “Feitian will inevitably provide earnest service to the giant military market under the grand strategy of ‘civil-military integration,’ and thus do our bit to help the construction of the nation’s informatized defensive infrastructure!”[8]

Feitian 2, Alliance

“In Earnest Celebration of the 76th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Liberation Army — Ceremony for the Founding of the IT-Military Alliance.” The event was part of Jiang Zemin’s push for “informatization” (信息化) of the PLA.

 

Though it is unclear when in 2003 Feitian won its first contract with ICBC, it is difficult not to imagine that its involvement with the PLA — irresistible though it may have been — helped in forging such relationships. Its approval and verification by the State Cryptography Administration in 2004 was also flagged as a “key milestone.”[9]

Already successful with banks in 2003, Feitian’s chief of research and development told the media in 2003 that the next areas of growth would be military and departments and offices for classified information (机要部门).[10]

The logic was obvious to Feitian executives: “As government procurement strengthens and priority is given to domestic products, our country’s state information security will be pushed forward considerably, and this is a precious business opportunity for the vast field of security companies.”[11]

It is difficult to find public information on the extent of that line of business. The company’s technology has however been certified as “military-use information security products.”[12]

In 2006, the company was awarded over one million yuan from a fund for new technology set up by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “This is the country’s strong affirmation of Feitian Co., and a thorough recognition of its technological prowess, project management capacity, and reputation,” said an announcement in the scientific press at the time.[13] Later in the year the company’s tech was declared “A New Important National Product” (国家重点新产品) by a number of government departments.[14]

From 2007 onwards, Feitian was selected to provide a smart card identity recognition system (智能网络身份认证系统) as part of the Torch Program,[15] China’s national plan to develop its high-technology industrial base.[16]

The company is part of a Smartcard Intellectual Property Alliance, a kind of government-industry group associated with the Beijing Municipal Intellectual Property Rights Bureau. A member of the Bureau’s Party Group (党组) presided over the alliance’s founding ceremony, on the basis that “the smartcard security industry concerns national information security and is an area of high-technology strongly supported by Beijing.”[17]

Feitian 3, keys

An example of one of Feitian’s security key products sold to banks in China, the ePass2000Auto LE.

Since 2009 Feitian has been listed in numerous databases maintained by the Ministry of Public Security among the accepted providers of identity recognition systems.[18] The list contains only Chinese companies trusted by the state, among them Huawei.

The company has also be the recipient of praise from former vice minister of Public Security Chen Zhimin (陈智敏) and other public and information security cadres, who are said to have expressed “excellent regard” for the company’s security management, and identification security.[19]

Feitian 4, Yu Huazhang

Yu Huazhang, the former PLA engineer and R&D chief at Feitian. (Source: 胡滢. 锁住的商机. 中国电子商务杂志. 2003(8). 56-58)

Perhaps most notably, since 2002 its research and development chief has been Yu Huazhang (于华章), a graduate of the PLA’s Information Engineering University and for the first seven years of his career an assistant researcher in the PLA’s General Staff Department. In April 2010, he became a 1% shareholder in the company. He is also a vice general manager.

The company and its key engineers won third prize (among many others) in the 2014 Beijing Municipal Technology Awards for “Application and operating system research and development for a chip in a visible-button smart security card” (可视按键型智能密码钥匙片内操作系统研发与应用) which sounds similar to the product being vended for Google’s enhanced security.[20]

Then there are the numerous exhibitions of official fealty on Feitian’s website, each not particularly significant taken on its own, but as a collection making clear that the company knows which way the wind blows. As a matter of routine, Feitian engages in activities like the following:

  • Hosting workshops for Chinese academicians to explicate the “spirit” of a series of Xi Jinping’s important speeches in order to “implement and carry out” the political directives resultant from the 18th Party Congress;[21]
  • Hosting tours of officials studying at the Party School;[22]
  • Advertising its award for “important contributions” to information security given by the Party-Government Password Science & Technology Progress Award Assessment Committee (yes).[23]

The company has been relatively profitable. Within its first year or so it had booked five million yuan in revenue, at gross profit of nearly 50%; by 2014 when it went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange its revenues were just over one billion yuan, 250 million yuan profit. (Its stock has been cut nearly in half since April 2018, however, due to “an inexplicable explosion in all manner of costs.”) In 2003 it occupied around 50% of the market for USB security keys, a dominance that it has likely grown since.[24]

Feitian 5, group photo with pla

Li Jinai (fifth from left), the former secretary of the PLA General Armaments Department and a member of the Central Military Commission, stands next to Feitian’s chairman Huang Yu (fifth from right), at a ceremony marking an alliance between the PLA and the IT industry in 2003.

 

The company has sought to expand overseas for at least a decade, in 2007 noting on its website that “Feitian’s ePass identification authentication products have been adopted by governments, banks, and others around the world. We have won a strong reputation as an independent Chinese company with our own intellectual property striding onto the world stage in information security.”

It is difficult to gather data on the extent of those expansion efforts — though the recommendation by Google speaks well to at least a partial success.

But does this compromise user security?

It goes without saying that almost everything we have documented above is simply part and parcel of Chinese companies doing business in China — in particular in a sensitive sector like information and network security, and especially when doing large business with state banks. When the PLA invites your company to join in the “earnest celebration” of its anniversary, present gifts, and join its industrial “alliance,” you don’t respectfully decline.

The same would obtain if the company were ever approached by military or civilian intelligence and instructed to install backdoors in its security fobs, according to Tom Uren, a visiting fellow in the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“Companies in China aren’t able to refuse to engage in intelligence activities. This is laid out very clearly in Article 7 of China’s new 2017 National Intelligence Law,” Uren wrote in an email.

The law states: “All organizations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of. The state will protect individuals and organizations that support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.”

 

Feitian 6, RSA conference

Feitian’s chairman Huang Yu sits at his desk. The text says: “Feitian Chengxin: The Chinese Face That Appeared Eight Times at the RSA Conference.” (Source: 李玲玲. 飞天诚信:八次现身RSA大会的中国面孔. 软件世界杂志 2011(4). 60-61.

 

A Chinese information security business has no choice in the matter. The question then becomes how feasible it is for the security device to be weakened or tampered with. At the very least, there is an obvious opportunity at the level of firmware — the software layer coded into a device that controls its hardware — for an adversary to create mischief.

“The firmware matters a lot, and that looks like why Google is planning to replace the firmware on their whitelabeled Feitian keys,” says Dan Guido, CEO of Trail of Bits, a New York-based computer security firm.

This refers to Google’s ‘Titan’ security keys, which appear to be Feitian hardware with Google’s own firmware. On its Advanced Protection Program page, however, Google links users directly to Feitian’s own website, not to the Titan keys with Google’s own firmware.

 

“Attackers will tend to use the easiest method to achieve their goals,” says Tom Uren. “Is compromising the Feitian security key supply chain the easiest way? Maybe. Phishing is certainly the easiest/cheapest way to hack data currently and security keys significantly reduce its effectiveness. It will certainly be an avenue that Chinese intelligence would have to consider if security keys are widely used by people of interest to them.”

The means by which attackers could gain unauthorized access through the keys are potentially numerous, including complex methods of introducing flaws in the cryptography or its implementation. Markus Vervier, a computer security researcher, has documented vulnerabilities in some implementations of U2F (universal two factor authentication). His work was not in reference to Feitian.

Yubico, a Swedish-founded company and Google’s other suggested vendor of U2F products, seems to have previously made a veiled suggestion as to the potential vulnerability of its competitor. CEO Stina Ehrensvard wrote on the company’s blog: “Yubico strongly believes there are security and privacy benefits for our customers by manufacturing and programming our products in the USA and Sweden.” The company declined to comment for this article.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. The FIDO Alliance, an organization that certifies hardware (and which has certified Feitian) for implementing the security protocols used in U2F products, did not respond to a request for comment. Feitian did not respond to a request for comment.

One security researcher refused to comment because it’s “obvious” that backdoors could be put into hardware at the manufacturing stage, and his team didn’t want to single out any particular country.

Perhaps the simplest test of the security of the Feitian keys is a gut check: would security experts themselves use them?

“No,” wrote Tom Uren. “I use Yubico keys.”

 

 

—————————

[1] 亲历者说:“小乌鸡”如何变成“金凤凰” 中关村股权交易服务集团有限公司组织编写. 创客时代 亲历者讲创业. 2016

[2] http://www.csrc.gov.cn/pub/zjhpublic/cyb/cybypl/201207/P020120702612306569933.pdf

[3] “About.” n.d. Feitian Technologies Co. Accessed August 17, 2018. https://www.ftsafe.com/about.

[4] 祝惠春. 2015. “飞天诚信大‘起底’ 看它如何变成创业板金凤凰-一卡通世界.” 经济日报. June 3, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20180817204339/http://news.yktworld.com/201506/201506031013120738.html.

[5] https://www.ftsafe.com/about/History

[6] 祝惠春 (2015)

[7] 赵阳戈. 2014. “飞天诚信:市场占有率跻身行业前三.” 每经网. June 18, 2014. http://www.nbd.com.cn/articles/2014-06-18/842169.html; 韦伟. 2014. “飞天诚信业绩依赖银行 穿‘马甲’投标涉不正当竞争.” 财经频道, 中国经济网; May 15, 2014. http://finance.ce.cn/rolling/201405/15/t20140515_2816496.shtml.

[8] 小晨. 八一前夕 科技拥军——计算机世界科技拥军捐赠仪式暨科技拥军联盟成立大会隆重举行. 微电脑世界,2003,(15).

[9] 飞天诚信喜获国密办两项资质_商用密码生产定点和销售许可. 电脑编程技巧与维护 2004(6).

[10] 胡滢. 锁住的商机. 中国电子商务杂志. 2003(8). 58

[11] Ibid.

[12] http://download.ftsafe.com/files/reader/FT-QUALIFICATION.pdf

[13] 飞天诚信荣获科技部技术创新基金支持. 电脑编程技巧与维护 2006(6).

[14] 崔光耀. 行业 标杆 如何竖起 — 飞天营销总监徐东谈国内业务. 信息安全与通信保密 2007(7). 34-35

[15] 2007: http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn/2/c100933/201402/72b304fcfb264910977d831759d23d9e.shtml; 2009: http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn/2/dddtt/200908/63f169a86da8411d804c555cb53767d9.shtml; 2011: http://www.most.gov.cn/tztg/201110/W020111013381125627477.pdf; 2016: http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn/2/c100924/201611/f2e7a55aef2847b8a3d578d6ec19c6ec.shtml

[16] https://web.archive.org/web/20171226031054/http://www.chinatorch.gov.cn:80/english/index.shtml

[17] “北京市成立智能卡行业知识产权联盟.” 2015. HRWF.com. May 2, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20180819201245/http://www.hwrf.com.cn/news/87276.html.

[18] See for instance: https://goo.gl/sJwD7B; https://goo.gl/sJwD7B; https://goo.gl/JuzmR4https://goo.gl/Ld4XEC

[19] 飞天诚信守护首都网络安全. 电脑编程技巧与维护. 2015(10),97.

[20] 2014年北京市科学技术奖获奖公告三等奖. May 6, 2015. http://jxw.beijing.gov.cn/creditbj/sxgs/14819.jhtml

[21] https://www.ftsafe.com.cn/article/483.html

[22] https://www.ftsafe.com.cn/article/500.html

[23] https://www.ftsafe.com.cn/article/509.html

[24] 胡滢. 锁住的商机. 中国电子商务杂志. 2003(8). 58

 

 


Related:

Google Advanced Protection Program: How to lock down your account (Google takes aim at “targeted” online attacks. Here’s everything you need to know about the new security option — including whether you should use it), CNet, October 17, 2017.

Google expands its Advanced Protection Program to cover Apple’s native iOS apps, VB, MAY 3, 2018.

GOOGLE STAFF TELL BOSSES CHINA CENSORSHIP IS “MORAL AND ETHICAL” CRISIS, The Intercept, August 16, 2018.

GOOGLE EXECUTIVES MISLED STAFF IN MEETING ON CHINA CENSORSHIP. HERE ARE 13 QUESTIONS THEY MUST ANSWER. The Intercept, August 17, 2018.

New Gmail feature could open more users to phishing risks: Government officials, ABC News, July 17, 2018.

 

 


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‘Beep. Beep Beep’: A Group Emerges in China and a Code is Born

Yaxue Cao, April 17, 2018

 

neihan duanzi composite 3

 

On April 10, China’s State Administration of Radio and Television ordered the permanent closure of the Neihan Duanzi (translated roughly as ‘quirky skits’) app and website. In its announcement, the authorities denounced the app and its public WeChat account as having an “improper orientation and vulgar style” that supposedly “evoked the great disgust of netizens.” Though the Chinese government has closed numerous popular entertainment websites over the last couple of years, the targeting of Neihan Duanzi triggered a storm of discontent, and observers said that the authorities had “stirred up a hornet’s nest.” The episode has brought to wider attention a large, little-known group in society, and observers are trying to grapple with its social and political significance.

Neihan Duanzi is primarily a mobile app on which users share inside jokes and absurdist videos. The platform first appeared on the website ‘Today’s Headlines’ (今日头条), also known in its pinyin form ‘Jinri Toutiao’ or Toutiao, in May 2012. The parent company that created both the app and the website, Bytedance, writes on its homepage that “We are building the future of content discovery and creation.” Neihan Duanzi was in fact the first product of Toutiao, predates the latter by three months, and quickly recruited the app’s first group of users. By 2017, Bytedance, established just five years prior, had leapt to number 41 on the official list of China’s Top 100 Internet Companies.

Neihan Duanzi encompasses a variety of short video sketches (funny, moving, musical, playful, and cute videos), genius retorts or responses (脑洞神评论, highlighted comments on Neihan Duanzi), hilarious images, and humorous sketches of all taste and manner.

The joke culture in China is a huge market. According to Bigdata Research’s 2nd quarter 2017 China joke app market research report, as of the end of June there were over 28 million users of these apps, a year on year growth rate of 5.7%. Bigdata Research notes that in July 2017 Neihan Duanzi was the most popular in this universe of apps, with 21.7 million users. Searching for ‘Neihan Duanzi’ in QQ groups, another popular Chinese social media platform, shows hundreds of chat groups dedicated to it.

Toutiao boasts a market value of over $20 billion. With its combination of data mining and AI algorithms that draw on user profiles and interests, its apps make targeted recommendations for news, music, movies, and games, and attract a massive inflow of users. Toutiao currently reports having 600 million active users, with 120 million daily actives.

Protests by ‘Skit Friends’

Neihan Duanzi’s enormous user base skews young. They call themselves ‘skit friends’ (段友), and organize ‘skit gatherings’ (段友会) in many cities, big and small, in China. They have formed their own online and offline communities, and have their own coded language. Many of them have Neihan Duanzi-inspired bumper stickers, sold by numerous merchants on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Ebay.

Videos shot by Neihan Duanzi users show the amusement they derive from greeting one another with coded messages in public: beeping, opening car trunks, and citing their codes back and forth. Some of the best known phrases include the likes of: “When skit friends go to battle, the grass ceases to grow” (段友出征,寸草不生); “Beer and crayfish, skit friends are one family” (啤酒小龙虾,段友是一家); or “Heaven king conquers earth tiger, chicken stews with mushrooms” (天王盖地虎,小鸡炖蘑菇).

Clearly, these interactions are a source of tremendous enjoyment and entertainment for the participants.

After Neihan Duanzi was closed, videos of previous gatherings of skit friends began to be shared widely online. Several of them show the remarkable scene of dozens of cars arrayed in formation late at night, together sounding out the calling card of the community: ‘Beep. Beep beep.’

According to Radio Free Asia, protests against the closure of the platform have taken place in Nantong (南通), Changsha (长沙), Yingkou (营口), Wuxi (无锡), Beijing (北京), and elsewhere. Protesters use the ‘beep, beep beep’ signal to initiate communication, which is met with response beeps and double blinking of car lights. Footage of the public events is often shot with drones and uploaded (here, here, and here.)

During a skit friend assembly of unclear date in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, about 200 people formed a circle and, like the students of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, held their cellphones aloft as torches and sang. The chosen piece of the night was popular singer Wang Jianfang’s ‘On Earth’ (王建房《在人间》):

Maybe I can’t win over Heaven and Earth.
Maybe I’ll hang my head and weep.
Maybe a June snowfall will enter my heart.
There’ll be a Berlin Wall I can’t get over.
Suffering will neighbor me all my days.

What has the grand era already snatched from you?
Who lives on earth as though it’s not a prison?
I won’t cry. I’ve no more dignity to abandon.
When the day comes that those dreams drown in the crowds
Don’t be sad, let them go, and sing this song at the funeral.

‘On Earth’ has come to be known as the theme song of Neihan Duanzi, and renditions of it have been widely spread on the platform (here, for example).

 

neihan duanzi composite 2

 

The CEO’s Apology

On April 11, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) issued “Apologies and Reflections.” “Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its ‘Neihan Duanzi’ app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].”

His confession confirms that the real reason for shutting down the app is political — what young people are consuming and how they are entertain themselves are not to the liking of the Party. “We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.”

The young CEO with an engineering background promised to “[strengthen] the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the ‘four consciousnesses,’ socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.”

He also promise to strengthen content review by humans, raising the current number of review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons. That is, for each person hired for content production, almost two are hired for review and sales, according to one report.

Last week, Xinhua published an editorial criticizing the online viral video as an entertainment form, saying: “In a society where it’s easier and easier to get clicks, at the same time that internet videos give the public novel experiences, because some of the content has no bottom line, some of these clicks spread poison and harm the public, especially young people.”

The same editorial cited an unnamed ‘expert’ who said: “These internet video websites get hundreds of millions of viewers, allowing ‘demons and goblins’ to warp the value system of adolescents, turning it into a trend to imitate and copy.”

An April 13 (unverified) work instruction from the Changsha Municipal Public Security Bureau Intelligence Command Center was circulated online, saying that four gatherings of ‘skit friends’ took place on April 11 in the city, and that the provincial public security bureau demands “public security organs in every locale engage in a thorough search for an evidentiary trail and online detection work, prevent assemblies that would lead to hype and unstable factors.”

As for skit friends gathering on the streets or in public spaces, the Zhejiang Haimen Public Security Bureau said in an April 8 announcement: “Any citizens convening crowd-style assembly activities must act strictly according to legal provisions,” or else “public security organs will pursue legal responsibility against the responsible parties.” The notice invoked “Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations” (《中华人民共和国集会游行示威法》) the “Road Traffic Safety Law” (《中华人民共和国道路交通安全法》), and the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” (《中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法》).

 

neihan duanzi composite 1.png

 

Deeper Reasons

Chinese young people generally pay scant attention to politics and they have been criticized for ‘amusing themselves to death.’ But entertainment has, it appears, come to give the Communist Party a severe headache. Using the phraseology of Xinhua, the jokers are seen as ‘demons and goblins’; their whimsical, irreverent attitude is seen as a strong rejection of autocratic authority and control. Perhaps, inside the ruling party, this movement has given rise to a strong sense of unease — not to mention that the style of humor itself is at times imbued with the implicit wish for freedom and dignity. We could even say that these young people are a ‘new form’ of Chinese person, the first generation to have been born and come of age entirely in the era of reform and opening up. They are the digital generation. They seem to take a great deal of pride in their own idiosyncratic way of life.

The news outlet Duowei, whose political allegiances have always been ambiguous, cited unidentified ‘voices’ who explained that the fundamental reason the Communist Party shut down Neihan Duanzi is because the app’s user base had begun to look like an embryonic political movement. Users are spread across China’s provinces, in small-, large-, and medium-sized cities; they come from all walks of life; they have formed their own community, with attendant slogans, signals, and an initial form of behavioral standards (such as the ‘three don’t laughs’: no laughing at natural disasters, no laughing at man-made disasters, and no laughing at illness). Between them, skit friends have a strong sense of cohesion, identity, belonging, and group honor. One of their slogans is ‘skit friends are one big family,’ and ‘if you’re in trouble, find a skit friend.’ The Party is afraid of all of this.

Searching on Baidu for + (城市+段友会) brings up related organizations almost anywhere. On rear windshields and car bumpers in cities around the country, Neihan Duanzi slogans can be seen. Photographs and videos from their meetings indicate that skit friends often have their own vehicles, and sometimes camera-equipped drones. In some cities they even have clubhouses.

It’s being pointed out that these skit friends grew up on shoot-em-up video games. Now that they have a chance for real conflict, they think it’s exciting. Shutting down Neihan Duanzi shows these young people the pain of having their freedom stripped away — it’s that simple.

The Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡) gave an example of shooting oneself in the foot on Twitter: “Before the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak lost power, the Egyptian government at one point cut off the internet, leading to countless people who were happy to be at home playing video games to take to the streets… everyone knows what happened next.”

Dissident writer Hu Ping (胡平) noted that “Xi Jinping doesn’t like ‘vulgarity’ among the masses, and wants to force men, young and old, to all be ideologically acceptable to the Party. This is a peculiarity of totalitarianism. Vulgarity is an important part of life, and if the regular people in society still have the space to enjoy humor, it means that the power of the state has not yet infiltrated everything and everywhere.”

Another dissident and author Li Xuewen (黎学文) believes that, “simply in the context of China’s new totalitarianism, the slogans and activities of Neihan Duanzi users set a worthy example for all who oppose the regime. Relying on internet culture to create a set of mobilization slogans is highly novel; and with a few horn beeps crowds can be gathered, as the symbols of an online community are shared and used as codes for mobilization — these qualities have not been seen in any mainland resistance movement to date.”

An Twitter user in Changsha said that on Tuesday when he was out walking in the evening, he spotted two cars near his home with ‘Neihan Duanzi’ and ‘Douyin’ (抖音, another app by Toutiao) stickers.

Another Chinese Twitter user, location unknown, posted on Friday: “Today I personally heard skit friends beeping at each other. One can feel the undercurrent. Maybe a big era has begun just like that.”

Beep. Beep beep.

 

 

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao

 


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Crushing a Rose Under Foot: Chinese Authorities Target Internet Chat Groups

China Change, April 4, 2018

 

Rose 公民权利讲座

A web lecture hosted by the Rose Team in mid-2017.

 

Between February and March this year, rights activists from provinces around China were summoned, questioned, and threatened by secret police who demanded that they withdraw from the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ also known as the ‘Rose team.’ These chatgroups have attracted relatively large numbers of internet users on different portals such as QQ, Skype, WeChat, Telegram, and WhatsApp. The intervention by Chinese police took place following the criminal detention of Xu Qin (徐秦), a leading activist and a spokesperson among these online groups, on February 9. She was accused of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Prior to this, the initiator of the Rose chatgroups and Wuhan dissident Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) was detained on January 9, 2015.

Between March 2013 and December 2014, Qin published a series of 12 open letters demanding that the government open a dialogue with the citizenry, that it safeguard human rights, and that it initiate a peaceful transition towards democracy in China. By the end of 2014, nearly 2,000 people had signed this appeal, the vast majority of them petitioners who had for years been suppressed and denied access to justice. Naming his movement after the rose, Qin set up chat groups on QQ, Skype, and WeChat, eventually resulting in a series of Rose groups online. Each group elected its own chat administrator through competitive elections and voting; altogether the initiative became a virtual gathering ground for like-minded petitioner-activists.

 

Rose XuQin

Xu Qin (in bright blue coat) and her activist friends call for the release of Qin Yongmin and his wife in Wuhan.

 

On June 4, 2014, Qin and his group set up the ‘Rose China’ website. It had 13 sections, including ‘Rights Observer,’ ‘Focus News,’ ‘Major Issues of Public Welfare,’ ‘Learning Center’ and more. The site also began holding online lecture series and meetings. Qin Yongmin tried to set up an organization called ‘China Human Rights Observer,’ though the authorities refused to register it as an official civil group.

Rose China’s website, hosted on servers outside the country, went offline for a short period recently, but is back up and running now.

In June 2016, the Wuhan Municipal Procuratorate indicted Qin Yongmin with “organization, scheming, and carrying out [a plot to] subvert the state regime.” It wasn’t until August 2017 that Qin saw his lawyer for the first time. His trial has been postponed again and again, and is now set for May this year. The indictment cited his organizing the Rose Group, among other things, as evidence of crime.

Qin, 64, is one of China’s most veteran political prisoners. The earliest years of his activism go back to the 1970s. In 1981 he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for participating in the ‘China Democracy Party,’ and was freed in 1989. He spent 1993 to 1995 in a forced labor camp after initiating the ‘Peace Charter’ (《和平宪章》). In 1998 Qin established the website China Rights Observer in Wuhan, as well as the Hubei branch of the China Democracy Party, for which he was charged with subversion of state power and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He completed the sentence in November 2010.

Xu Qin, 55, got into activism by the need to defend her own rights — but she soon began defending the rights of others, and became an active participant in the Rose chatgroups. After Qin Yongmin was arrested in 2015, Xu took up the mantle of leadership of the Rose groups, and began to speak publicly about China’s human rights situation, in particular to foreign journalists, making her one of the few active voices in the now largely dormant China human rights scene. On February 9, 2018, before the Chinese New Year, Xu Qin disappeared while visiting her hometown of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province. It was soon confirmed that she had been arrested. In March she was placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ and the initial charge of ‘provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble’ was upgraded to ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ She has not been allowed access to a lawyer.

Since February, a number of activists have been summoned and questioned by state security officers, including Ding Yu’e (丁玉娥) in Shandong, Guo Chunping (郭春平) in Henan, Wang Jiao (汪蛟) in Anhui, Huang Genbao (黄根宝) in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, and Fan Yiping (范一平) in Guangzhou. State security agents demanded that they leave the Rose chatgroups and threatened “If you don’t listen, you’ll bear the consequences yourself.” Guo Chunping was beaten by police while in custody.

Even human rights lawyers have been questioned about their possible connections with the Rose chatgroups. On March 30, Friday, the recently disbarred lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) was visited by two police who wanted to ask questions “about WeChat Rose chatgroups.” Lawyer Sui wondered why the Rose groups have become the target of such widespread action and concluded that the interrogations and arrests had to have been ordered and coordinated by a central organ in Beijing. He declined police’s request for questioning.

 

Rose, Qin Yongmin

Qin Yongmin.

 

Separately, the whereabouts of at least two activists (Yang Tingjian [杨霆剑] in Jiangxi and Xu Kun [徐昆] in Yunnan) are currently unknown. But their disappearance is believed to be connected to crackdown on Rose chatgroups.

The Rose activists that were interrogated by police were told that these chatgroups have been designated an ‘illegal organization.’ Police said that 51 people have been arrested so far in connection with the groups, though there is currently no way of independently corroborating the figure.

Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (民生观察网), a Chinese human rights website, on March 29 published a statement that said: “From the limited information revealed by the media, it is clear that the Chinese communist authorities have launched a national, large-scale suppression of the Rose chatgroups, in order to, 1) crush the chatgroups by conducting mass summonses, threats, and arrests of participants, and 2) gather ammunition for bringing false charges against Rose chatgroup leaders Qin Yongmin, Xu Qin, and

China Change understands from activists in China that many people have already quit the Rose chat groups, and that some chat rooms were long ago suspended, shut down, or had no administrators. Some activists say, however, that a few groups are still active. The chief editor of the Rose China website quit the Whatsapp Rose chat group for activists in Hubei.

The targeting and attempted obliteration of the Rose chatgroups indicates that the government in Beijing is methodically dismantling activist groups, including even loose or casual connections between activists. In the past five years, it has first taken out the leading activists across the country and imprisoned them, including with the now infamous 709 incident against human rights lawyers. Having done that, it is now engaged in a second and third round, to purge any continuing human rights activities.

 

 


Related:

Members of Petitioners Group ‘Rose China’ Detained, Yaqiu Wang, January 18, 2016.