Chinese authorities are using cellphone data to track down protesters who demonstrated against the government’s strict Covid restrictions in Beijing, according to a recording of a phone call between a protester and police heard by CNN.
Hundreds of protesters gathered along the Liangma River in Beijing on Sunday evening, calling for an end to relentless Covid testing and lockdowns. Some have also denounced censorship and called for greater political freedoms.
The extraordinary spectacle of dissent in the heart of the Chinese capital ended largely peacefully in the early hours of Monday. But some protesters have since received phone calls from police asking about their participation.
A protester told CNN he received a phone call on Wednesday from a police officer, who revealed he had been followed because his cellphone signal was recorded near the protest site.
CNN is not naming any of the protesters in this story to protect them from retaliation.
According to a recording of the phone conversation listened to by CNN, the protester was asked if he had been to the Liangma River on Sunday evening. When they denied being there, the caller asked, “So why did your cell phone number show up there?”
In China, all cellphone users are required by law to register their real name and national ID number with telecommunications providers.
The protester was also asked to report to a police station for questioning and to sign a statement. When asked why they had to comply, the caller replied that it was “an order from the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau,” according to the recording.
CNN contacted the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau for comment.
Some protesters took precautions not to be followed or identified. A protester told CNN she kept her phone on airplane mode during the protest and was not contacted by police on Thursday afternoon.
Although protests against local grievances are occurring in China, the current wave of demonstrations is unprecedented since the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the Party communist tightened its grip on all aspects of life, launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent, and built a high-tech surveillance state.
China’s security apparatus moved quickly this week to quell mass protests that swept the country, maintaining a heavy police presence in places where crowds had gathered over the weekend or were planning to do so. .
In Shanghai, where some of the boldest protests have taken place with crowds calling for Xi’s withdrawal for two consecutive nights, police searched residents’ cellphones on the streets and in the subway for virtual private networks ( VPN) that can be used to bypass the Chinese Internet Firewall. , or applications such as Twitter and Telegram, which, although banned in the country, have been used by protesters.
Police also confiscated the cellphones of arrested protesters, according to two protesters who spoke to CNN.
A protester who was arrested over the weekend said he was told to hand over his phone and password to police as “evidence”.
They said they feared police would export their phone data after it was confiscated by officers, who told them they could get it back a week later.
Another protester said police returned his phone upon his release, but officers deleted the photo album and took down the social media app WeChat.
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