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China’s finely crafted web of digital surveillance for the Beijing Olympics has been years in the making

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/2/2022 Christian Shepherd
Surveillance cameras behind a fence set up for the Beijing Olympics on Jan. 7. © Andrea Verdelli/Bloomberg News Surveillance cameras behind a fence set up for the Beijing Olympics on Jan. 7.

China’s preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics have been characteristically extensive. Poorly advertised, but no less far-reaching, though, are the preparations of its security state. High-profile political events provide an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to expand surveillance and experiment with new procedures and technologies while honing well-tested measures of control.

Ahead of the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, the main thrust of such measures has been ensuring that nothing can damage China’s image during the Games. Athletes have been warned against making political statements, and foreign journalists’ ability to report on the broader social and economic impacts of the games is limited by covid-19 controls.

Attempts to ensure a propaganda win have also reached as far as Tibet and Xinjiang, two of the most tightly controlled regions in the world.

As the world turns its attention to the Beijing Games, here is what we know about what China’s security state is monitoring.

What is the scope of state surveillance in China?

The full extent of China’s domestic security state has been unclear since 2013, when the Finance Ministry stopped disclosing it after years of greater spending on internal security than on defense.

What is known is that extensive upgrades to state surveillance have been pursued across China in recent years. This surveillance state 2.0 has been built by police budgets, creating a vast market for leading Chinese companies that bring emerging technologies to bear on catching and preventing perceived sources of social instability.

The goal, experts say, is monitoring the whole of society, so avoiding state surveillance requires extreme measures — and even then, there is no guarantee.

“Whether it’s WiFi sniffers or ID checks when you get on a train, book into a hotel, or simply go online, these are aspects of your life that you know could be tracked and analyzed,” said Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The aim is to make you feel watched, even when you are not.”

Alongside adopting new technologies, the Communist Party has also expanded its idea of who is considered a threat. Human rights activists fear that a growing emphasis on “extremism” and “terrorism” is being used to justify government abuses.

Ahead of the Winter Olympics, local governments from Qinghai in northwestern China to Shandong on the east coast held “counterterrorism” campaigns.

A worker adjusts a surveillance camera inside the Olympic media center on Jan. 26. © Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock A worker adjusts a surveillance camera inside the Olympic media center on Jan. 26.

How does this system work in practice?

Video: India's Only Beijing Winter Olympian (QuickTake)

There are many overlapping parts of China’s security state. There are media censorship and monitoring of online discussion. There are surveillance and control of dissident figures. There are new methods of voice and image analysis developed by technology firms. And there is a massive network of low-level volunteer informants on the lookout for suspicious activity.

At the center of the national security state is President Xi Jinping and the upper echelons of the Communist Party. In practice, this means that the capital, Beijing, is the heart of a system of coercion and control designed to apprehend troublemakers.

Work to protect the capital is often carried out far away, however, as police departments across the country are charged with preventing petitioners or activists from traveling there. In Chifeng, a city in Inner Mongolia nearly 260 miles away, for example, police promised to inspect every car driving in Beijing’s direction.

Many of the upgrades ahead of the Winter Olympics have focused on Zhangjiakou, the joint host city northwest of Beijing that was considered to have a “poor foundation” for surveillance. Security cameras in the city were upgraded to keep track of at least 2 million people. In the mountains of Chongli, where the venues are, one high-definition camera was installed for every square kilometer.

A guard at a train station in the Olympic bubble on Jan. 29. © Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images A guard at a train station in the Olympic bubble on Jan. 29.

How have things changed under Xi Jinping?

The Summer Olympics of 2008 coincided with a turning point in the evolving security state. That March, Tibetan communities, angered by tightening restrictions and state coercion, violently clashed with Chinese police, undermining Beijing’s big moment.

Since Xi took office in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party’s preoccupation with ensuring national — and its own — security has only increased. The national security prism is now inescapable, especially for the lengthening list of groups — Uyghurs, Tibetans, rights lawyers, feminists and foreign journalists, to name a few — considered inherently a danger to party control.

The “difference between 2008 and 2022 is not just the number of surveillance systems and technologies; it’s also the intention of building comprehensive, watertight surveillance,” Wang said.

China’s “zero covid” policy has further normalized surveillance. “The pandemic essentially created a situation of emergency measures. It allowed the government to impose restrictions that before the pandemic would have attracted debate,” she said.

Will Olympic athletes be affected at the Games?

How much of China’s surveillance apparatus will be targeted at athletes is hard to know. Beijing wants to project an image of transparency and has made clear it wants politics to be kept out of sports. But the country’s intensifying domestic controls, brazen arrests of foreign nationals and harassment of activists and journalists have given Western governments reason for concern.

Security experts have urged anyone going to the Games to assume they will be monitored. The U.S. Olympics and Paralympics committee, Britain, the Netherlands and Canada have advised athletes to consider taking measures such as using “burner” phones in Beijing to limit remote monitoring after they return home.

The official Chinese My2022 smartphone app, used to track temperature and daily coronavirus tests, among other functions, was found to have a “simple but devastating flaw” in its protection of personal health and identification information, according to analysis by the Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity research project at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

China said the accusations were “without evidence” and later added that, even if there were security flaws, they have now been fixed.

What steps can people take to thwart snooping?

To limit surveillance risks during the Olympics, cybersecurity experts have suggested that those traveling to Beijing bring special-purpose laptops and smartphones that can be wiped clean after leaving.

Although Olympics officials have created a gap in the “great firewall” to allow attendees to use usually blocked platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter while in Beijing, some analysts recommend caution about logging into certain social media or email accounts. Using a virtual private network can help mask a device’s identity and create a more secure connection to the Internet.

But attempting to protect yourself from every dimension of Chinese surveillance would mean thinking like a “drug kingpin” trying evade the law, the psychological impact of which is probably the last thing athletes want during a major competition, said Wang, of Human Rights Watch.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.


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