The Wall Street Journal: China’s Internet Police Step Out of the Shadows

The Wall Street Journal

After years of working in the shadows, China’s Internet police are stepping into the light.

On Monday, Chinese police officially unveiled an Internet inspection force that it said has long operated in the wings.

Internet police units at 50 locations ranging from megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai to “small impoverished cities” in southwest China’s Guizhou province this week officially launched social networking accounts to publicize their work and get their message across, according to the official Xinhua news service. These include the use of such popular online sites as Sina Corp’s Weibo and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat, it added.

People use computers at an Internet cafe in central China’s
Anhui province. (Associated Press)

“Internet police are coming out to the front stage from behind the curtains,” said a statement on the Ministry of Public Security website.

Among the objectives of these cyber police teams include detecting “illegal and harmful information,” preventing improper words and deeds online, publishing case reports, guarding against cyber criminals and handling public tips, according to the ministry statement. Cyber police have already deleted some 758,000 pieces of “criminal information” and handled over 70,000 cybercrime cases this year, it added.

The move came on the same day that Chinese authorities announced the kick-off of the country’s second annual Cyber Security Week.

“Cyber security isn’t just about national security and national development, but also concerns the immediate interests of every Internet user,” Xinhua quoted China’s top Internet regulator Lu Wei as saying.

Postings on various social network sites operated by cyber police units include advice (“air conditioning makes your feet cold”), tips on avoiding online scams (“watch out for wedding invitations bearing viruses”) warnings (“don’t spread rumors online or we’ll pull you in for questioning”) and efforts to strengthen the bond between police and the public (“My mom and dad both work for the police, I’m so proud of them”).

Online netizen responses to the official postings were limited — “Uncle Police, I love you,” read one — and most of the police sites were interspersed with a generous number of cartoons depicting cutesy policemen and policewomen, happy children and wolf-like criminals grabbing young damsels. Lest you get distracted by the warm and fuzzy imagery, however, Xinhua used a large picture of hands locked in handcuffs to illustrate the new policy.

The public security ministry’s embrace of social media follows recent efforts by Beijing to curb social media as a vehicle for public debate and political dissent. China initially let social-media platforms function in a relatively freewheeling manner in order to monitor opinions and let citizens to vent frustrations. But starting last August, it tightened restrictions on instant-messaging services such as WeChat — known as Weixin in China — to “help build a clean cyberspace” and safeguard national security.

Xiao Qiang, founder China Digital Times, a U.S.-based civic group that monitors the Chinese Internet, said this campaign is the latest in a series of steps since Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2013 aimed at stepping up Internet control using new, more effective methods.

“Here, they’re taking Internet control from behind the screen, almost like they’re driving by in a police car,” said Mr. Xiao, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. “They’re escalating their efforts, putting in more resources. They don’t think they can control the Internet the way they want,” he added.

Mr. Xiao said police Internet campaigns are often framed as efforts to fight crime and pornography, but a broader objective is to control information and curtail dissent, he added. The problem for the censors is that Chinese netizens are becoming increasingly independent and difficult to control, Mr. Xiao said, complicating the job of monitoring and shaping the message. “The authorities are really desperate, and I don’t think it will work,” he said.

Zhu Wei, vice-chair of the China University of Political Science and Law’s Internet Research Center in Beijing, countered that cracking down on people’s ideas is not the objective of this new campaign — it’s about fighting increasingly complex online crime. He added that the campaign will almost certainly be expanded beyond the initial 50 locations.

Mr. Zhu said this latest, more-open strategy is an effective way to educate the public and bridge the gap between real-world crime and cybercrime. “To connect the ‘two worlds,’ they need to come out to the front of the stage,” Mr. Zhu told China Real Time. Past efforts asking websites to control their users had shortcomings. “Websites don’t have law enforcement power. It will save time if the Internet police are on duty directly,” he added.

–Mark Magnier. Follow him on Twitter @markmagnier.

Scroll to Top