How China’s Cell Phone Spies Track Covid Protesters

US firms helped build Beijing’s ubiquitous surveillance systems

Police officers in Luoyang in Henan province wear sunglasses linked to facial recognition software that can identity fugitives. The devices are just some of the advanced surveillance technology used by police in China. Photo: Reuters via SCMP

China’s anti-lockdown protests last month were the worst blow yet to the prestige of Xi Jinping. One moment, the Chinese Communist Party’s leader was riding high after securing a third term at the top of the party-state. The next, he was challenged by demonstrators in the streets to “step down,” a sentiment that protestors also chanted against the party itself.

The discontent with the CCP expressed by demonstrators exceeded that of the more massive 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, albeit this time with much lower numbers: most of the 19 or more cities where protests erupted drew less than 50 people, while the other half in tier one cities with more foreign contact attracted over 50, some in the hundreds.

Though the numbers were small, it was a notable “political coming out of the closet,” (政治出柜, zhengzhi chugui), much discussed in Chinese social media. But to keep it in perspective,  the protests were not thousands of people openly defying authority, as the world now observes in Iran. As far as is known, these were limited actions by small groups in urban centers. 

However, the protests in China at the end of November were bold, as those who participated risked arrest or worse. And there is a chance that the demonstrators represented a larger and more cautious percentage of society. 

Though the party leadership rapidly (maybe too rapidly) eased the “zero Covid” restrictions that prompted this popular anger, those who spoke up soon learned who was boss.

A rough pattern of police response developed, with some similarity to the way some other protestors have been treated. Mere participants were summoned to police stations to explain themselves and sign statements saying they would never do it again. One demonstrator, perhaps typifying others, had tried to disguise himself with a balaclava and clothing change but was quickly tracked down by police. He was surprised at how easily authorities had picked him out of a large crowd, evidently using his phone data and their urban surveillance system.

Leaders of the protests were treated more harshly. At least one—the man who may have led the first “step down” chants in Shanghai—was apprehended at work and has since disappeared. He, too, thought he might not

be identified.

Years ago, well before Xi Jinping’s new era of paranoid surveillance, some citizens have been more clued in than others to the regime’s use of mobiles to keep tabs on users. Chinese citizens secretly working for a foreign intelligence agency were trained to, among other things, separate their phones from any incriminating activity.

Those just living lives removed from international intrigue, but who were tech savvy, also chose different ways to minimize surveillance, according to a Chinese American author who has regularly returned to China for research. They would “put their cell phones in another room when they talk, or take out the SIM cards, use different cell phones to contact different people,” similar to the tactics of protestors in the U.S. to avoid surveillance and police use of data.

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China’s Fearful Intelligence Culture

Excerpt from “China, The Fearful Intelligence Culture,” By Matthew Brazil

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has placed priority on its intelligence and security operations for almost a century. This core business of the party significantly contributed to the CCP’s 1949 victory and to the maintenance of its current power.

Most recently, the internet and artificial intelligence (AI) have enabled previously unimaginable foreign espionage successes. Yet there are cracks in the façade: unending existential fear about enemies within; fear of being caught between CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s never-ending anti-corruption drive and a culture that still fosters graft; as well as fear of being insufficiently loyal to Xi’s “thought” and to his status as the CCP “core.”

Drawing from Chinese language publications and interviews with former western security officials who had regular contact with their Chinese counterparts, this chapter argues that these are old problems, but under Xi, have become more pronounced than in recent decades. It shows how China’s espionage organs will likely continue to achieve successes in cyber espionage, agent recruitment, and technology theft, but dispassionate intelligence analysis may be hindered by pressure to conform to the party line. Thus, Chinese intelligence culture in the 2020s may sometimes make it difficult for Beijing’s senior leaders to see the forest through the trees.

The above is an excerpt from “China: The Fearful Intelligence Culture”, in Ryan Shaffer, ed. The Handbook of Asian Intelligence Cultures (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, October 2022). This chapter on China has six sections:

  • The Shellshocked Roots of Chinese Communist Intelligence and Security
  • Corruption, Anticorruption, and Power Struggles
  • State Security, Not National Security
  • The Lasting Leftist Influence of Mao Zedong and Kang Sheng
  • Competent Spy Versus Rear Area Ideologue
  • Conclusion: Beijing’s services may be developing a superior understanding of big data compared to their Western counterparts as cyber operations garner an ever greater share of resources. Meanwhile, during the 2020s and 30s the ranks of State Security and military intelligence will fill up with recruits born during and after the 1990s, raised in an era of heightened nationalism and suspicion of foreigners. If the legacy of fear persists while raw data from cyber and other operations keeps piling up, Beijing’s ability to make sense of the outside world and future domestic developments may decline.

The Handbook of Asian Intelligence Cultures has 30 chapters, one for each Asian nation, and can be found on and Amazon.

The above article is also available on LinkedIn here.

The Lockdown Protests in China Meet the Intelligence and Security Apparatus

Here are two very recent forums where I had opportunities to reflect on the intersection between China’s security and intelligence apparatus and the nationwide lockdown protests:

As a result of the tragedy in Urumqi, protestors in China are almost certainly motivated by the fear that they themselves might become fire, earthquake, or flood victims should they need to evacuate a locked-down location.

Secondly, if demonstrators did not previously understand the extent to which their mobile phones were miniature spies-in-the-pocket, they certainly do now. That realization could alter the way people in China handle their cell phones. Imaginative ways to circumvent the surveillance system could develop.

Finally, the protests will probably soon be suppressed. But if they continue, the next step could be to call in the  People’s Armed Police  (PAP), which is a different organ of state security than the Public Security Bureaus around the country. The PAP is little understood outside of China – but is an extremely powerful tool with vast resources. They are trained to quickly put down mass civil disturbances with overwhelming force, but to do so without resorting to the June Fourth, 1989 solution of machine-gunning the citizenry in the streets.



Non-resident Fellow,  The Jamestown Foundation  and Contributing Editor,  SpyTalk  San Jose, CaliforniaMobile (Signal enabled): +1-408-891-5187