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Exclusive-Chinese province targets journalists, foreign students with planned new surveillance system

Security surveillance camera overlooks a street as cars pass by in Beijing, China, November 24, 2021. Photo taken November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rollins Reuters

This content was published on November 29, 2021 – 13:15

BEIJING (Reuters) – Documents seen by Reuters show that security officials in one of China’s largest provinces have ordered a surveillance system they say they want to use to track journalists and international students among other “suspicious people”.

A tender document on July 29 published on the Henan provincial government procurement website — first reported in the media — details plans for a system that can collect individual files of such interested people coming to Henan using 3,000 facial recognition cameras connected to various national and regional databases.

Separate documents, posted on the Henan government procurement website, showed that a contract worth 5 million yuan ($782,000) was awarded on September 17 to Chinese technology company Neusoft, which was required to finish building the system within two months of signing the contract. Reuters was unable to determine if the system is currently working.

Shenyang-based Neusoft did not respond to requests for comment.

China is trying to build what some security experts describe as one of the world’s most advanced surveillance technology networks https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-monitoring-insight-idUSKBN1KZ0R3, with millions of cameras in public places and increased use of technologies such as Smartphone monitoring and facial recognition.

US-based surveillance research firm IPVM, which closely followed the network’s expansion and first became familiar with Henan’s document, said the tender was unique in identifying journalists as targets for surveillance and offering a blueprint for public security authorities to quickly locate and disrupt their work.

IPVM Chief Operating Officer Donald May said, using the initials of the People’s Republic of China.

Reuters has not been able to find any documents identifying journalists or foreigners as specific targets of surveillance systems in other parts of China.

Henan provincial government and police did not respond to requests for comment. The Ministry of Public Security and the Chinese Foreign Ministry also did not comment.

“controlled and controlled”

The nearly 200-page tender document from the Henan Public Security Department gives no reasons for wanting to track down journalists or international students. Another category of people she said she wanted to track down were “women from neighboring countries who are illegal residents.”

Public access to the tender document was suspended on Monday.

The cameras specified in the bidding document must be able to generate a relatively accurate profile of individuals whose faces are partially covered by a mask or goggles, and the targets must be searchable in the database by simply uploading an image or searching for their facial features.

The system will be operated by at least 2,000 officials and police, and specifies that journalists will be divided into three categories: red, yellow and green, in descending order of risk, according to the tender.

The tender explains that various police forces covering the whole of Henan, whose population of 99 million makes it China’s third most populous province, will be connected to the platform in order to set off if the warning is triggered.

The warnings will be triggered if a journalist registers while in Henan at a hotel, buys a ticket, or crosses the provincial border, according to the tender.

The tender states that “suspicious persons shall be disciplined and controlled, dynamic research analyzes and risk assessments conducted, and journalists treated according to their category.”

The tender also provided details of various early warning systems for other groups.

Medium control

Some press freedom groups say the ruling Chinese Communist Party has tightened its control over the media since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2012.

In February, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) said China had used coronavirus prevention measures https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-media-idUSKCN2AT182, intimidation and visa restrictions to limit foreign reporting in 2020 , citing responses to an annual survey of reporters and interviews with office heads.

China’s Foreign Ministry at the time called the FCC’s report “baseless” and said China always welcomes media and journalists from all countries to cover news in China in accordance with the law. “What we oppose is ideological bias against China and fake news in the name of freedom of the press,” a spokesman said.

While most of the Henan document refers to journalists, many passages identify “foreign journalists”.

In October last year, the Henan government posted on its procurement platform to potential suppliers a short summary of the planned project in which it said the system would “focus on foreigners” and help “protect national sovereignty, security and interests”.

The contract was put up for tender on July 29, days after foreign journalists from the BBC, Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and others reporting on devastating floods in Henan were targeted by a nationwide crackdown on the heavily censored Chinese social media platform.

The FCC said at the time https://twitter.com/fccchina/status/1419946356995629057 it was “deeply concerned to witness online and offline harassment of journalists” covering the floods. He described how, for example, one Weibo account asked its 1.6 million followers to report the whereabouts of a foreign journalist who was reporting on the floods.

The tender also said the system should be able to track the movements of international students through methods such as mobile locators and travel reservations – particularly during key dates such as the country’s national day or the annual session of Parliament.

“On… sensitive dates, they launched a wartime early warning mechanism,” the statement read.

(dollar = 6.3924 Chinese yuan)

(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Lincoln Fest.)

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