The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese police are knocking on protesters’ doors, searching cellphones

Police in Beijing park on Nov. 29 near the site of last weekend's protests as they continue to monitor for new demonstrations. (Andy Wong/AP)
6 min

They are showing up at homes in the middle of the night, stopping people and searching their phones for banned apps, summoning individuals for questioning at police stations and holding them for more than 24 hours.

Through these and other tactics, Chinese authorities are quietly trying to stamp out the demonstrations and vigils that have spread across the country within the past week, challenging the Communist Party’s authority in a way not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

Since the protests started in response to a deadly apartment building fire last Thursday in the city of Urumqi, police have tracked down an unknown number of demonstrators and advised them not to attend any more such gatherings, according to demonstrators, relatives of detained protesters and lawyers.

The Washington Post spoke to people involved in six cases of protesters being questioned or detained, though lawyers said they were familiar with more than 20 encounters. All spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals by authorities.

Chinese officials have not directly acknowledged the demonstrations, which have morphed from targeting the government’s severe “zero covid” policy to demanding free speech, rule of law and in some cases, reform of the country’s one-party political system led by President Xi Jinping. Instead of a visible and hard crackdown, authorities seem to be proceeding less overtly — at least for now.

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“The tried-and-true tactics range from the most brutal to the less discernible, applied to people based on their circumstances,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The authorities have already resorted to harassment and intimidation of those who went to the protest scenes.”

One 26-year-old woman who, with her husband, attended a protest in the capital on Sunday said that they heard a knock on their door some 26 hours later. They were immediately fearful. “It was 3:50 a.m.,” she recounted. “Who else could it be but the police?”

Her husband told her to hide in the bedroom before he opened the door. He was taken away and did not return home until more than half a day later.

She wonders if the officers came because she and her husband showed their faces at the protest or because they drove to it and parked their car nearby. She declined to discuss what her husband was asked while in custody but explained why they took part despite the risk: “We just want to live like people, with freedom and rights.”

Authorities may be using data from cellphone towers to track people who were close to the protests, according to one China-focused security expert. Chinese cellphone providers, as required by a 2013 law, must do real-name registration for all numbers. As cellphone users access 4G or 5G data, their devices ping those towers and the data recorded is saved and filtered by time and date.

Wang Shengsheng, a lawyer in Guangdong who is offering free legal advice to demonstrators, said that in all of the more than 20 cases she has dealt with this week, police took away protesters’ phones.

“This is something we’ve never seen before. This time it’s apparent that, for the police, the phones are what they are paying attention to the most,” Shengsheng said. She believes authorities are searching through cellphones and social media accounts to figure out the lines of communication and possible leaders to keep the activism from becoming a movement.

“After that, they will punish the important figures, find the pattern of communication and path and stop other protests from happening,” she said.

A 33-year-old Shanghai resident working in media said he was walking home Tuesday evening when he was stopped by two police officers who asked for his phone for a “routine check.” After police saw that he had Telegram installed, they took him back to a station and questioned him about why he had the messaging app, which is blocked in China. One officer, using a printed list, checked his phone for various foreign apps, he said.

The man, who provided only his surname, Wang, because of fears of reprisal, thinks the protests were good for letting people feel “not so alone or so helpless.” Still, he added, he is unlikely to go again.

Residents who observed the protests from proximity said they also got calls from police. Another 26-year-old Beijing resident attended the demonstration on Sunday — mostly just observing, she said. A day later, police called her to come to the station for questioning. She said she was asked about her presence at the protest and her thoughts about the government’s covid policies.

The officer questioning her said the government wants to improve the city but needs to protect the lives of the elderly. “He explained that the country is thinking for the people and hopefully some improvements will be seen soon,” she said. He also suggested she not attend any more protests.

See what led protesters to a breaking point with China’s ‘zero covid’ policy

Two other residents in Shanghai told The Post that their colleagues and loved ones were interrogated by police this week. In one case, a woman was forced to go with officers to a station after she was reluctant to let them search her phone.

Yang, a 27-year-old who attended a weekend rally in the resort town of Dali, said two police officers came to his home on Tuesday. Three of his friends, students at a local university, were told by their school to provide written accounts of their Sunday activities or be expelled, he said, adding that only two had been at that rally.

Authorities at several universities in Beijing and the southern province of Guangdong — where some of the earliest events took place — have announced that students will be sent home early for the semester break as a coronavirus precaution. At Tsinghua University, the Chinese leader’s alma mater, free buses were being arranged to take students to transport hubs.

Nationalist commentators have ramped up efforts to blame the protests on “foreign forces,” a narrative that government officials appear to endorse. Chen Wenqing, head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Communist Party’s top decision-making body for law enforcement policy, said Tuesday that authorities would act against “infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces as well as on illegal or criminal acts that disrupt social order.”

The protester in Beijing whose husband was detained remembered a moment at the Beijing rally when a bystander accused the protesters of being those hostile foreign influences. “We yelled: We are all Chinese,” she said.

Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang contributed to this report.