According to a Washington Post review of hundreds of Chinese bidding documents, contracts, and company filings, China is expanding its internal Internet data surveillance network by mining Western social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to provide information on foreign targets to its government agencies, military, and police. China has a nationwide network of government data monitoring services, known as public opinion analysis tools, that have been built over the last decade and are used domestically to alert officials to politically sensitive information on the internet.
The software is primarily aimed at Chinese Internet users and media, but a Washington Post review of bidding documents and contracts for over 300 Chinese government projects since the beginning of 2020 found orders for software that collects data on foreign targets from sources like Twitter, Facebook, and other Western social media.
The records, which are available to the public through domestic government auction platforms, also show that agencies such as the state media, propaganda departments, police, military, and cyber regulators are buying new or more advanced data collection tools. A $320,000 Chinese state media software programme mines Twitter and Facebook to create a database of foreign journalists and academics; a $216,000 Beijing police intelligence program analyses Western chatter on Hong Kong and Taiwan; and a Xinjiang cybercenter cataloguing Uyghur language content abroad are among them.
“Now we have a better understanding of the anti-China underground network,” said a Beijing-based analyst who works for China’s Central Propaganda Department. The source, who requested anonymity to discuss their work, claimed they were previously entrusted with preparing a data analysis on how unfavorable news against Beijing’s top leadership is distributed on Twitter, including profiles of specific academics, politicians, and journalists.
These monitoring dragnets are part of a larger push by Beijing to use big data and artificial intelligence to improve its international propaganda efforts.
They also build a network of early warning systems that sound real-time alerts when trends threaten Beijing’s interests. “They’re now reorienting part of that effort abroad, and I think that’s truly alarming, given the enormous numbers and overwhelming scale of this inside China,” said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior scholar at the German Marshall Fund who has studied China’s internal public opinion network extensively. “It truly demonstrates that they now believe it is their obligation to defend China abroad and fight the public opinion war,” she said.
Purchasing and maintaining international social media profiles on behalf of police and propaganda departments is part of the Chinese government’s budgeting. Others indicate how the targeted analysis was used to improve Beijing’s foreign media portrayal.