The more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras that are everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored.
Now, even their future is under surveillance.
The latest generation of technology digs through the vast amounts of data collected on their daily activities to find patterns and aberrations, promising to predict crimes or protests before they happen. They target potential troublemakers in the eyes of the Chinese government — not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.
They can warn the police if a victim of a fraud tries to travel to Beijing to petition the government for payment or a drug user makes too many calls to the same number. They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.
automating systemic discrimination and political repression.
to quell ethnic unrest in the western region of Xinjiang and enforce some of the world’s most severe coronavirus lockdowns. The space for dissent, always limited, is rapidly disappearing.
“Big data should be used as an engine to power the innovative development of public security work and a new growth point for nurturing combat capabilities,” Mr. Xi said in 2019 at a national public security work meeting.
ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society, which has systematically gathered years of records on government websites. Another set, describing software bought by the authorities in the port city of Tianjin to stop petitioners from going to neighboring Beijing, was provided by IPVM, a surveillance industry publication.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment faxed to its headquarters in Beijing and six local departments across the country.
The new approach to surveillance is partly based on data-driven policing software from the United States and Europe, technology that rights groups say has encoded racism into decisions like which neighborhoods are most heavily policed and which prisoners get parole. China takes it to the extreme, tapping nationwide reservoirs of data that allow the police to operate with opacity and impunity.
Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, told Chinese state media that the surveillance system could give the police a search engine for crime, analyzing huge amounts of video footage to intuit patterns and warn the authorities about suspicious behavior. He explained that if cameras detected a person spending too much time at a train station, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.
Hikvision, that aims to predict protests. The system collects data on legions of Chinese petitioners, a general term in China that describes people who try to file complaints about local officials with higher authorities.
It then scores petitioners on the likelihood that they will travel to Beijing. In the future, the data will be used to train machine-learning models, according to a procurement document.
Local officials want to prevent such trips to avoid political embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing. And the central government doesn’t want groups of disgruntled citizens gathering in the capital.
A Hikvision representative declined to comment on the system.
Under Mr. Xi, official efforts to control petitioners have grown increasingly invasive. Zekun Wang, a 32-year-old member of a group that for years sought redress over a real estate fraud, said the authorities in 2017 had intercepted fellow petitioners in Shanghai before they could even buy tickets to Beijing. He suspected that the authorities were watching their communications on the social media app WeChat.
The Hikvision system in Tianjin, which is run in cooperation with the police in nearby Beijing and Hebei Province, is more sophisticated.
The platform analyzes individuals’ likelihood to petition based on their social and family relationships, past trips and personal situations, according to the procurement document. It helps the police create a profile of each, with fields for officers to describe the temperament of the protester, including “paranoid,” “meticulous” and “short tempered.”
Many people who petition do so over government mishandling of a tragic accident or neglect in the case — all of which goes into the algorithm. “Increase a person’s early-warning risk level if they have low social status or went through a major tragedy,” reads the procurement document.
When the police in Zhouning, a rural county in Fujian Province, bought a new set of 439 cameras in 2018, they listed coordinates where each would go. Some hung above intersections and others near schools, according to a procurement document.
Nine were installed outside the homes of people with something in common: mental illness.
While some software tries to use data to uncover new threats, a more common type is based on the preconceived notions of the police. In over a hundred procurement documents reviewed by The Times, the surveillance targeted blacklists of “key persons.”
These people, according to some of the procurement documents, included those with mental illness, convicted criminals, fugitives, drug users, petitioners, suspected terrorists, political agitators and threats to social stability. Other systems targeted migrant workers, idle youths (teenagers without school or a job), ethnic minorities, foreigners and those infected with H.I.V.
The authorities decide who goes on the lists, and there is often no process to notify people when they do. Once individuals are in a database, they are rarely removed, said experts, who worried that the new technologies reinforce disparities within China, imposing surveillance on the least fortunate parts of its population.
In many cases the software goes further than simply targeting a population, allowing the authorities to set up digital tripwires that indicate a possible threat. In one Megvii presentation detailing a rival product by Yitu, the system’s interface allowed the police to devise their own early warnings.
With a simple fill-in-the-blank menu, the police can base alarms on specific parameters, including where a blacklisted person appears, when the person moves around, whether he or she meets with other blacklisted people and the frequency of certain activities. The police could set the system to send a warning each time two people with a history of drug use check into the same hotel or when four people with a history of protest enter the same park.
Yitu did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
In 2020 in the city of Nanning, the police bought software that could look for “more than three key people checking into the same or nearby hotels” and “a drug user calling a new out-of-town number frequently,” according to a bidding document. In Yangshuo, a tourist town famous for its otherworldly karst mountains, the authorities bought a system to alert them if a foreigner without a work permit spent too much time hanging around foreign-language schools or bars, an apparent effort to catch people overstaying their visas or working illegally.
In Shanghai, one party-run publication described how the authorities used software to identify those who exceeded normal water and electricity use. The system would send a “digital whistle” to the police when it found suspicious consumption patterns.
The tactic was likely designed to detect migrant workers, who often live together in close quarters to save money. In some places, the police consider them an elusive, and often impoverished, group who can bring crime into communities.
The automated alerts don’t result in the same level of police response. Often, the police give priority to warnings that point to political problems, like protests or other threats to social stability, said Suzanne E. Scoggins, a professor at Clark University who studies China’s policing.
At times, the police have stated outright the need to profile people. “Through the application of big data, we paint a picture of people and give them labels with different attributes,” Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”
Toward Techno Totalitarianism
Mr. Zhang first started petitioning the government for compensation over the torture of his family during the Cultural Revolution. He has since petitioned over what he says is police targeting of his family.
As China has built out its techno-authoritarian tools, he has had to use spy movie tactics to circumvent surveillance that, he said, has become “high tech and Nazified.”
When he traveled to Beijing in January from his village in Shandong Province, he turned off his phone and paid for transportation in cash to minimize his digital footprint. He bought train tickets to the wrong destination to foil police tracking. He hired private drivers to get around checkpoints where his identification card would set off an alarm.
The system in Tianjin has a special feature for people like him who have “a certain awareness of anti-reconnaissance” and regularly change vehicles to evade detection, according to the police procurement document.
Whether or not he triggered the system, Mr. Zhang has noticed a change. Whenever he turns off his phone, he said, officers show up at his house to check that he hasn’t left on a new trip to Beijing.
Even if police systems cannot accurately predict behavior, the authorities may consider them successful because of the threat, said Noam Yuchtman, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who has studied the impact of surveillance in China.
“In a context where there isn’t real political accountability,” having a surveillance system that frequently sends police officers “can work pretty well” at discouraging unrest, he said.
Once the metrics are set and the warnings are triggered, police officers have little flexibility, centralizing control.They are evaluated for their responsiveness to automated alarms and effectiveness at preventing protests, according to experts and public police reports.
The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.
One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.
Mr. Zhang expressed frustration at the ways technology had cut off those in political power from regular people.
“The authorities do not seriously solve problems but do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” he said. “This is a big step backward for society.”
Mr. Zhang said that he still believed in the power of technology to do good, but that in the wrong hands it could be a “scourge and a shackle.”
“In the past if you left your home and took to the countryside, all roads led to Beijing,” he said. “Now, the entire country is a net.”
Isabelle Qian and Aaron Krolik contributed research and reporting. Production by Agnes Chang and Alexander Cardia.
The police had warned Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer, not to go to Shanghai to visit the mother of a dissident. He went to the airport anyway.
His phone’s health code app — a digital pass indicating possible exposure to the coronavirus — was green, which meant he could travel. His home city, Changsha, had no Covid-19 cases, and he had not left in weeks.
Then his app turned red, flagging him as high risk. Airport security tried to put him in quarantine, but he resisted. Mr. Xie accused the authorities of meddling with his health code to bar him from traveling.
model of secure order, in contrast to the “chaos of the West.” In the two years since officials isolated the city of Wuhan in the first lockdown of the pandemic, the Chinese government has honed its powers to track and corral people, backed by upgraded technology, armies of neighborhood workers and broad public support.
zero Covid” approach has helped keep infections low, while the death toll continues to grow in the United States and elsewhere. But Chinese officials have at times been severe, isolating young children from their parents or jailing people deemed to have broken containment rules.
City officials did not respond to questions about assertions by Mr. Xie, the lawyer. While it is hard to know what goes on in individual cases, the government itself has signaled it wants to use these technologies in other ways.
Officials have used pandemic health monitoring systems to flush out fugitives. Some fugitives have been tracked down by their health codes. Others who avoided the apps have found life so difficult that they have surrendered.
health code. Residents sign up for the system by submitting their personal information in one of a range of apps. The health code is essentially required, because without it, people cannot enter buildings, restaurants or even parks. Before the pandemic, China already had a vast ability to track people using location data from cellphones; now, that monitoring is far more expansive.
expanded their definition of close contact to include people whose cellphone signals were recorded within as much as half a mile of an infected person.
The party’s experiment in using data to control the flow of people has helped keep Covid at bay. Now these same tools potentially give officials greater power to manage other challenges.
as a model for how China can use technology to address social problems.
Since 2020, Hangzhou has also used video cameras on streets to check whether residents are wearing masks. One district monitored home power consumption to check whether residents were sticking to quarantine orders. The central city of Luoyang installed sensors on the doors of residents quarantining at home, in order to notify officials if they were opened.
crashed twice in two weeks,disrupting the lives of residents who had to update their apps each day with proof that they had taken Covid tests.
By focusing on technology and surveillance, Chinese officials may be neglecting other ways of protecting lives, such as expanding participation in public health programs, wrote Chen Yun, a scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, in a recent assessment of China’s response to Covid.
state media — roughly one in every 250 adults. Under the grid management system, cities, villages and towns are divided into sections, sometimes of just a few blocks, which are then assigned to individual workers.
During normal times, their duties included pulling weeds, mediating disputes and keeping an eye on potential troublemakers.
Amid the pandemic, those duties mushroomed.
take out their trash.
They also were given powerful new tools.
The central government has directed the police, as well as internet and telephone companies, to share information about residents’ travel history with community workers so that the workers can decide whether residents are considered high-risk.
a woman who was eight months pregnant because her Covid test result had expired hours earlier. She lost the baby, an episode that inspired widespread public fury. But some blamed the heavy burden placed upon low-level workers to stamp out infections.
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“In their view, it’s always preferable to go too far than be too soft-handed, but that’s the pressure created by the environment nowadays,” Li Naitang, a retired worker in Xi’an, said of local officials.
Still, for defenders of China’s stringent measures, the results are undeniable. The country has recorded only 3.3 coronavirus deaths per million residents, compared to about 2,600 per million in the United States. In mid-January, Xi’an officials announced zero new infections; this past week, the lockdown was lifted entirely.
‘You’ll never be lost’
The government’s success in limiting infections means its strategy has earned something that has proved elusive in many other countries: widespread support.
published an analysis of each province’s criteria for a health code to turn from green to yellow. It concluded that, for most provinces, the answer was unclear.
“You never know if your planned itinerary will be canceled, or if your travel plans can be realized,” the article said.
local news report. Eighteen summonses were successfully delivered as a result.
Local governments across China have sought to assure people that their health code data will not be abused. The central government has also issued regulations promising data privacy. But many Chinese people assume that the authorities can acquire whatever information they want, no matter the rules.
Zan Aizong, a former journalist in Hangzhou, says the expansion of surveillance could make it even easier for the authorities to break up dissenters’ activities. He has refused to use the health code, but it means moving around is difficult, and he finds it hard to explain his reasoning to workers at checkpoints.
“I can’t tell them the truth — that I’m resisting the health code over surveillance,” he said, “because if I mentioned resistance, they’d think that was ridiculous.”
Joy Dong, Liu Yi and Li You contributed reporting and research.
BARCELONA, Spain — In the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s top separatist leader traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline.
The independence movement in Catalonia, the semiautonomous region in Spain’s northeast, had been largely crushed after a referendum on breaking away two years earlier. The European Union and the United States, which supported Spain’s effort to keep the country intact, had rebuffed the separatists’ pleas for support.
But in Russia, a door was opening.
In Moscow, the emissary, Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, met with current Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a K.G.B. spymaster. The aim was to secure Russia’s help in severing Catalonia from the rest of Spain, according to a European intelligence report, which was reviewed by The New York Times.
recordings revealed a Russian plot to covertly finance the hard-right League party. In Britain, a Times investigation uncovered discussions among right-wing fringe figures about opening bank accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have also offered assistance to far-right parties, according to the intelligence report.
Whether Mr. Alay knew it or not, many of the officials he met in Moscow are involved in what has become known as the Kremlin’s hybrid war against the West. This is a layered strategy involving propaganda and disinformation, covert financing of disruptive political movements, hacking and leaking information (as happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and “active measures” like assassinations meant to erode the stability of Moscow’s adversaries.
It is unclear what help, if any, the Kremlin has provided to the Catalan separatists. But Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow in 2019 were followed quickly by the emergence of a secretive protest group, Tsunami Democratic, which disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and cut off a major highway linking Spain to northern Europe. A confidential police report by Spain’s Guardia Civil, obtained by The Times, found that Mr. Alay was involved in the creation of the protest group.
Unit 29155, which has been linked to attempted coups and assassinations in Europe, had been present in Catalonia around the time of the referendum, but Spain has provided no evidence that they played an active role.
Many Catalan independence leaders have accused the authorities in Madrid of using the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grass-roots movement of regular citizens. The referendum was supported by a fragile coalition of three political parties that quickly dissolved over disputes about ideology and strategy. Even as some parties pushed for a negotiated settlement with Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like mop of hair, has eschewed compromise.
Asked about the Russian outreach, the current Catalan government under President Pere Aragones distanced itself from Mr. Puigdemont.
railed against the “silence of the main European institutions.”
The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal. Russia’s position, by contrast, was more equivocal. President Vladimir V. Putin described the Catalan separatist drive as Europe’s comeuppance for supporting independence movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“There was a time when they welcomed the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about this,” Mr. Putin said. “We talk about double standards all the time. There you go.”
In March 2019, Mr. Alay traveled to Moscow, just weeks after leaders of the Catalan independence movement went on trial. Three months later, Mr. Alay went again.
In Russia, according to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met with several active foreign intelligence officers, as well as Oleg V. Syromolotov, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, who now oversees counterterrorism as a deputy minister at the Russian foreign ministry.
Mr. Alay denied meeting Mr. Syromolotov and the officers but acknowledged meeting Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a famous K.G.B. spymaster, in order to secure an interview with Mr. Puigdemont on an international affairs program he hosted on Kremlin television. Last year, Mr. Primakov was appointed by Mr. Putin to run a Russian cultural agency that, according to European security officials, often serves as a front for intelligence operations.
“Good news from Moscow,” Mr. Alay later texted to Mr. Puigdemont, informing him of Mr. Primakov’s appointment. In another exchange, Mr. Dmitrenko told Mr. Alay that Mr. Primakov’s elevation “puts him in a very good position to activate things between us.”
Mr. Alay also confirmed meeting Andrei Bezrukov, a decorated former officer with Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For more than a decade, Mr. Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, were deep cover operatives living in the United States using the code names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.
It was their story of espionage, arrest and eventual return to Russia in a spy swap that served as a basis for the television series “The Americans.” Mr. Alay appears to have become close with the couple. Working with Mr. Dmitrenko, he spent about three months in the fall of 2020 on a Catalan translation of Ms. Vavilova’s autobiographical novel “The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” according to his encrypted correspondence.
Mr. Alay, who is also a college professor and author, said he was invited by Mr. Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow university, to deliver two lectures.
Mr. Alay was accompanied on each of his trips by Mr. Dmitrenko, 33, a Russian businessman who is married to a Catalan woman. Mr. Dmitrenko did not respond to requests for comment. But Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected a citizenship application from him because of his Russian contacts, according to a Spanish Ministry of Justice decision reviewed by The Times.
The decision said Mr. Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and also “does different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.
A Political Tsunami
A few months after Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow, Catalonia erupted in protests.
A group calling itself Tsunami Democratic occupied the offices of one of Spain’s largest banks, closed a main highway between France and Spain for two days and orchestrated the takeover of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.
The group’s origins have remained unclear, but one of the confidential police files stated that Mr. Alay attended a meeting in Geneva, where he and other independence activists finalized plans for Tsunami Democratic’s unveiling.
Three days after Tsunami Democratic occupied the Barcelona airport, two Russians flew from Moscow to Barcelona, the Catalan capital, according to flight records obtained by The Times.
One was Sergei Sumin, whom the intelligence report describes as a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which oversees security for Mr. Putin and is not known for activities abroad.
The other was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a top adviser to Mr. Putin, one who was deeply involved in Russia’s efforts to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.
According to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met the two men in Barcelona for a strategy session to discuss the independence movement, though the report offered no other details.
Mr. Alay denied any connection to Tsunami Democratic. He confirmed that he had met with Mr. Sumin and Mr. Lukoyanov at the request of Mr. Dmitrenko, but only to “greet them politely.”
Even as the protests faded, Mr. Puigdemont’s associates remained busy. His lawyer, Mr. Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to meet Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western law enforcement agencies describe as a senior Russian organized crime figure. The goal, according to the report, was to enlist Mr. Khristoforov to help set up a secret funding channel for the independence movement.
In an interview, Mr. Boye acknowledged meeting in Moscow with Mr. Khristoforov, who is wanted in several countries including Spain on suspicion of financial crimes, but said they only discussed matters relating to Mr. Khristoforov’s legal cases.
By late 2020, Mr. Alay’s texts reveal an eagerness to keep his Russian contacts happy. In exchanges with Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Boye, he said they should avoid any public statements that might anger Moscow, especially about the democracy protests that Russia was helping to disperse violently in Belarus.
Mr. Puigdemont did not always heed the advice, appearing in Brussels with the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his support for the protesters, prompting Mr. Boye to text Mr. Alay that “we will have to tell the Russians that this was just to mislead.”
PARIS — The French police on Wednesday arrested seven former members of Italian left-wing extremist groups who had been convicted of terrorism crimes in Italy decades ago, but were given refuge in France.
A court will now decide if the militants, arrested at the request of the Italian authorities, can be extradited to Italy, a decision that could take several years depending on appeals.
Dozens of Italian leftist extremists were given refuge in France decades ago by the socialist government at the time if they agreed to renounce violence, a move that long poisoned the diplomatic relationship between France and Italy.
The government’s announcement of the arrests on Wednesday signaled an easing of that troubled relationship, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy and President Emmanuel Macron of France managing to establish closer ties in recent months.
Lotta Continua, which translates as “Continuous Struggle,” was also detained in France. Mr. Pietrostefani was sentenced to 22 years in prison for murdering the police chief of Milan, Luigi Calabresi, in 1972.
François Mitterrand, the former socialist president of France, instituted a policy in the 1980s when he was in office of granting asylum to leftist Italian militants — much to the anger of the Italian government, which requested their extradition — providing they renounced violence and were not wanted in Italy for murder or other “crimes of blood.” Some of the militants, like Mr. Pietrostefani, however, had been implicated in such crimes.
One of the beneficiaries of the so-called Mitterrand Doctrine who was arrested on Wednesday was Marina Petrella, a former Red Brigades member who fled to France in 1993 after being convicted of involvement in several murders.
In 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy rejected a request from the Italian government to extradite Ms. Petrella, citing humanitarian reasons as her health was deteriorating. The refusal provoked outrage in Italy and revived dormant tensions between the two countries.
The French presidency said in its statement Wednesday that the arrests “fall strictly within the framework of the Mitterrand doctrine, since they are blood crimes.”
In 2019, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister at the time, said that he would “appeal to the French president to return to Italy some fugitives who do not deserve to drink champagne under the Eiffel Tower, but deserve to rot in jail in Italy.”
strategic alliance with Mr. Macron at the European level and Wednesday’s decision testified to this new working relationship.
Marta Cartabia, Italy’s justice minister, said she met with her French counterpart, Éric Dupond-Moretti, and that he had shown a “particular sensitivity” to the case and “decisive will to cooperate.”
Mr. Dupond-Moretti said he hoped the arrests “will allow Italy to turn a bloody and tearful page of its history after 40 years.”
Benedetta Tobagi, an Italian journalist and daughter of Walter Tobagi, a reporter who was killed in 1980 by a left-wing terrorist brigade, welcomed the decision in an editorial in the Italian daily La Repubblica on Wednesday.
But she added, “the anomaly is not the arrests, but the unreasonable persistence of the Mitterrand doctrine, the fact that it took so many years, and so much effort, to unblock the situation.”