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World China’s cyber cops defend protection of citizens from ‘illegal information’

Patrons at an Internet cafe in Beijing on Feb. 10, 2010.

Shiho Fukada/NYT

With a pledge to drag its Internet enforcers out of the shadows, China on Monday revealed new details about the platoons of cyber cops that patrol its online space.

"Internet police are coming out to the front stage from behind the curtains," the country's powerful and feared Ministry of Public Security said.

In the first five months of the year, it added, Chinese cyber cops have expunged 758,000 pieces of "illegal and criminal information." Over the same period, police probed more than 70,000 cases of cyber crime – more than 450 a day, a figure that demonstrates the extreme sensitivity China has developed toward the Internet habits of its people, in particular under President Xi Jinping.

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China did not reveal the number of police patrolling its Internet or how many people they have arrested for crimes that can include the posting of unflattering images of Mr. Xi, an act that put one artist behind bars last week.

But the new details have nonetheless brought fresh attention to the extraordinary measures China takes to quell digital dissent. Under Mr. Xi's leadership, Beijing continues to diminish the ability of Chinese people to use the Internet to expose wrongdoing, communicate news not approved by authorities or even chat with friends without fear their conversations could land them in trouble. Recent months have suggested more is coming.

Authorities are working to set in place a broad new national security law that seeks to root out "harmful moral standards" and would create new "systems for cyber and information security." Critics have called it a "neo-totalitarian" piece of legislation, but it falls in line with calls from Mr. Xi for the use of the Internet – along with Chinese arts and culture – to spread "positive energy."

To further enforce that, China is also building a "social credit system" that would rely in part on individual Internet browsing and posting histories to assign each person a score that reflects their adherence to socialist values like patriotism and hard work. Comments critical of the Communist Party risk producing a poor score that would threaten a person's ability to secure work or bank loans. It's been called an "Orwellian" system for the digital age.

China's Internet police, as part of their charm offensive this week, defended their work as keeping the Internet free of problems for everyday Chinese.

"Freedom of speech is enshrined in the law," Zhong Zhong, deputy inspector at the Bureau for Network Security, said in an comments published by the Global Times, a Communist mouthpiece newspaper. Online enforcement is useful to "stop the spread of illegal information," he said, so China can "protect the legal right of every netizen to use Internet."

Internet police themselves form only a small part of China's sweeping efforts to monitor, censor and hack cyberspace, both inside and outside its borders. In 2013, a Beijing News article detailed an army of two million Chinese "Internet opinion analysts" employed by companies and government propaganda bureaus to monitor, report and reshape online conversation. Using expensive custom Web-crawling software, they trawl for negative opinions, and then work to "calm down" debate.

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Celebrities with big followings are kept in check by personal censors, known to the celebrities by name and employed by the media companies themselves, who call to warn when some online commentary has crossed the line. Those who too often transgress into dangerous territory are arrested.

Though some of China's most talented hackers work for the military, much of its online censorship is conducted by corporations. Sina Corp., which runs a popular Twitter-like Weibo service, has an "internal department to filter and censor," said King-wa Fu, an assistant professor in the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. His research has involved studying deleted Weibo posts at a cross-section of users. In recent days, between 15 and 25 of every 10,000 posts have been deleted. Authorities seem to be leaning more heavily on spam marketing and pornography, Prof. Fu said.

"It may be related to some internal campaign to try to increase the levels of what they call guarding public opinion," he said. "Since Xi Jinping has come on board, there have been a lot of new regulations. In general, we see a tightening situation with censorship in China."

China first discussed its interest in cyber policing in 2000, with the formation of new Internet cops in the country's Anhui province, a "first of its kind in China," the state-run People's Daily said then. At that time, China's Internet users numbered just 15 million. Last year, 632 million were online, and enforcement efforts have also grown exponentially. In 2005 alone, Beijing announced the hiring of 4,000 Internet police; a few years later, security authorities warned about a scourge of "rampant Internet crime."

Those warnings have helped underpin construction of the vastly sophisticated "Great Firewall of China." Large parts of the foreign-hosted Internet are now blocked in the country. Among them are major Western news organizations, but also numerous sites useful to Chinese researchers and companies, whose access to outside information has grown increasingly constrained. In late May, all of the Chinese-language Wikipedia was blocked.

In handing China's Internet czars such great power, the country has also provided fertile territory for corruption. In 2009, the director of Internet monitoring at the Beijing Public Security Bureau was accused of accepting nearly $8-million in bribes from a company that paid him to help shut down a competitor.

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On Monday, however, the Internet police sought to portray themselves as helpful uncles. Cyber cops in 50 different cities launched new social media accounts. The first posts included one from Nanchang, a city of five million in southern Jiangxi province, with a cautionary tale about a woman lured by a text message promising photos of a friend's party – only to have nearly $6,000 stolen from her bank account.

"Cyber police notice" the Nanchang authorities wrote: "do not click on those text messages you have received!"

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