How Using ‘Wrong’ Words in Calls and Messages Could Trigger Punishment in China

January 18, 2020 Updated: February 13, 2020
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In the United States and other parts of the world where freedom of speech is highly valued and emphasized, people usually do not have to worry that voicing their opinions about the government or its policies could lead to punishment. However, this is not the case for people in China.

For years, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat has been making headlines for censoring its users’ content and sharing it with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Those who were found guilty of spreading messages deemed “sensitive” by the regime might have to face imprisonment.

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This illustration picture shows the logo of the Chinese instant messaging application WeChat on the screen of a tablet. (©Getty Images | MARTIN BUREAU/AFP)

Monitoring Calls and Messages

For instance, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che was arrested in 2017 when he arrived in China. He was later convicted of “subversion” after being found “guilty” of sending pro-democracy messages to others through WeChat and other messaging platforms.

“There is simply no privacy in China. Social media, calls and messages on mobile phones are all under surveillance,” said a former employee of China Mobile Online Services Company to Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China. The company is a subsidiary of China Mobile Limited, the state-owned and largest telecommunications service provider in China.

The former employee, who requested to remain anonymous, was one of the at least 500 staff members tasked with monitoring calls and messages. He went on to reveal how the Chinese regime has been controlling its citizens.

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China Mobile advertising board on the side of a building. (©Getty Images | DANIEL SORABJI/AFP)

“If one says anything deemed unfavorable to the CCP, he or she will be punished. Every person is monitored and controlled under the pretext ‘to crack down on harassment,’” he disclosed.

Sensitive Words

The man told the magazine that words like “Almighty God” and “Falun Gong” were classified as “sensitive.” Even phrases that indicated withdrawal of membership from the Communist Party and its affiliated organization, the Communist Youth League, are monitored closely.

He added that “immediate measures will be taken to intercept messages that mention the CCP’s organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners to prevent leaks.”

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is an ancient spiritual discipline based on the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance, and consists of five sets of peaceful exercises. Introduced in China in 1992, the practice spread by word of mouth as people benefited both physically and morally. However, in 1999, a massive campaign of suppression was launched after the regime saw at least 70 million to 100 million of its citizens—more than the CCP’s membership—take up Falun Gong.

After the persecution started, numerous Falun Gong practitioners were arrested and detained in prison, labor camps, and brainwashing centers where they were repeatedly tortured. In recent years, media outlets worldwide have reported that the Chinese regime has been harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, with the majority being from Falun Gong practitioners.

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Falun Gong practitioners perform the fifth exercise of Falun Dafa. (©The Epoch Times | Samira Bouaou)

The former staffer said that a system is put in place to detect any sensitive information, and those users who were found to share such nature of information would face punishment, with the company cutting off their service.

“If any sensitive words were detected during phone calls, in MMS, SMS, or messages on social networking sites like WeChat, the system would automatically intercept the information and users’ services would be deactivated instantly, disabling these people to make phone calls or send messages,” he said.

In order to use the service again, the users would have to visit the service center of the telecommunications company “with their ID card and write a statement promising never to share any sensitive information again.” However, the deactivation of the service is considered a minor punishment.

In one instance, the staffer said that a man in Fujian Province was prohibited from traveling and had his passport destroyed because he was found to have made comments that were “insulting to the government” and “disturbing the public order.”

The level of monitoring by a telecommunications company can be quite shocking to those who are not familiar with the Chinese regime’s tactics. However, there is actually more to it.

Anonymous I.T. Expert’s Warning

The Epochtimes previously reported a warning posted by a Falun Gong practitioner in China who worked in the I.T. industry. He shared anonymously on the internet how the use of cell phones could put other Falun Gong practitioners’ lives in danger.

The expert said that the regime has been collecting a wide range of information on its citizens. Some of the information includes a user’s location and travel routes, pictures taken with phones (the regime can hack into the cameras and take additional pictures and videos), fingerprints from the “unlock-with-fingerprint function,” voice-prints, chatting information, websites and services that the user had accessed, and contact information from address books.

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Journalists visit the Huawei Digital Transformation Showcase in Shenzhen, China’s Guangdong province. (©Getty Images | WANG ZHAO/AFP)

He also explained how an idle phone can become a listening device: the phone will be activated upon detecting a “trigger word” in a person’s conversation (though the person is not on a call) and proceed to record the chat and send the entire conversation to the regime.

“From then on, this cellphone is set for long-term monitoring, using the various aforementioned monitoring methods,” he wrote. “Through the phone’s address book, call recording and chat software, the CCP then locates other practitioners to monitor.”

Mandatory Facial Scans in China

In attempts to tighten the control of cyberspace, from Dec. 1, 2019, the Chinese regime required all telecom operators to collect facial scans of those applying for a new telephone account. This measure has raised surveillance concerns among experts and residents. One man surnamed Wang, from China’s Nanjing City, told Radio Free Asia: “The facial recognition system is very scary. After 5G [new telecom generation] network was installed in most regions of the country, they [the government] can find you any time.”

He also added that two other colleagues had to undergo facial scans when applying for new cell phones.