When Chinese human rights activist Aizhong Wang logged into his Twitter account this week, he was shocked to find all his tweets had been deleted.
- Chinese dissidents have been summoned by police and told to delete their Twitter accounts
- Experts say the move is designed to control and censor
- Twitter has noticed unusual activity from IP addresses linked to state-backed actors in China and Saudi Arabia
Every one of his thousands of posts to the social media platform — which covered topics from politics to the human rights of jailed lawyers — had been wiped.
“All of the tweets that I posted disappeared, and more than 1,000 users I followed on Twitter disappeared as well,” he told the ABC.
But Mr Wang’s silencing isn’t the first time China has been accused of hacking into a dissident’s Twitter account — it appears to be part of a wider trend.
The stealth crackdown marks a new frontier for China’s Great Firewall, the digital border constructed by the Chinese Government to control access to the internet in the mid-1990s.
Now, policing thought appears to have extended beyond Chinese platforms, which are routinely censored, to a western social media platform that is largely inaccessible from China.
Mr Wang, who lives in China’s southern city of Guangzhou, said he has been using Twitter as his daily source of news since 2013.
His tweets vanished within an hour of him receiving nearly a dozen password verification messages from social media accounts linked to his mobile number, including Twitter and Alibaba.
He said he had no doubt Chinese authorities were behind the attack, though he had no way to prove it.
In the past, Chinese national security officials have urged him to curb his activities and followed him to social events, he added.
“In China, there is no privacy protection for dissidents like me, and the authorities’ surveillance on me is everywhere,” Mr Wang said.
The ABC contacted the Guangdong National Security Department for comment but did not receive a response.
Tightening grip on free speech
As Beijing tightens its grip on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat, growing numbers of Chinese activists and dissidents became active on Twitter, using VPNs in an attempt to bypass the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) censorship machine.
Last year, the Government also began to crack down on the use of VPNs, aiming to further restrict the internet use of Chinese netizens who jump over the Great Firewall.
The targeting of Chinese Twitter users soon followed.
More than 30,000 tweets from Wu Gan, a social activist who was widely known as his translated Twitter handle “Ultra Vulgar Butcher”, were removed last year while he was serving an eight-year prison sentence for subversion.
And recently, Twitter users say they have been invited to “drink tea” — a euphemism for being summoned by the police — and instructed to delete their accounts.
Earlier this month, China Change published testimonies from 42 dissidents, intellectuals and journalists who were summoned by police to delete their tweets or even their entire account.
Wen Tao, a journalist who disappeared for more than 80 days in 2011 and tortured because of his association with artist Ai Weiwei, was visited by police in October and told to delete his account.
“I said that is unacceptable, but I voluntarily promised to self-censor what I say in order to reduce the waste of police resources and avoid upsetting loved ones so frequently,” he tweeted.
Twitter user Ruby16674510 said they too were called by police and told not to tweet.
“Is it possible to not use Twitter? Yes, but you better kill me,” they wrote.
Ye Du posted on Twitter: “The storm has come indeed. I was asked to delete a total 802 tweets.”
Some feared for the safety of their families.
“Recently I caused a lot of trouble for my friends and family because of my use of Twitter; therefore, I probably will not be on Twitter again for a long time,” chongguoshao wrote.
State-sponsored actors ‘targeting Twitter’
This week Twitter notified the public about an issue related to one of their support forms in mid-November.
“During our investigation, we noticed some unusual activity … specifically, we observed a large number of inquiries coming from individual IP addresses located in China and Saudi Arabia,” Twitter posted to its support page.
“While we cannot confirm intent or attribution for certain, it is possible that some of these IP addresses may have ties to state-sponsored actors.”
Twitter said law enforcement had been notified, but declined to comment further when contacted by the ABC.
Tim Wellsmore, director of Government Security Programs in the Asia Pacific for cybersecurity company FireEye, said dissidents’ online accounts are frequently targeted by state-linked attackers, particularly those from China.
“These attackers can use network visibility, or even exploit weaknesses in mobile handsets to bypass SMS-based two-factor authentication to gain access to those accounts,” he said.
Text messages, Mr Wellsmore said, “are only as private as the telecommunications providers allow”. In China, all telecommunications companies are state-owned.
“This privacy is never assured, particularly in authoritarian regimes with low standards of personal privacy,” he said.
The ABC has contacted the Chinese Embassy in Australia and China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry for comment.
Why Twitter, why now?
While “sock puppets” — people allegedly acting on behalf of Beijing — taking to Twitter to harass dissidents is nothing new, hacking into Twitter accounts and wiping tweets appears to be an escalation, according to Dr Graeme Smith, a fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.
“That’s a much more aggressive approach,” he said.
“It’s about both control and censorship … it is an expansion of existing programs of control and oppression.”
Dr Smith said that while Uyghur and Tibetan activists and other dissidents have been under attack for a long time, Western journalists and academics are now also being targeted by sock puppets — fake Twitter accounts that parrot the CCP line.
He added that he had also been “attacked” by so-called sock puppets.
“I try to understand the motivation for it, because in the past, Chinese state actors really haven’t cared what white Australians think or say,” he said.
It could be a way to put out a counter-narrative — not necessarily to win people over, but to muddy the waters — and to signal to a domestic audience that there are lines that cannot be crossed, according to Dr Smith.
“Now because China is globalised, it has to move its control beyond its own borders,” he said.
By Erin Handley and Bang Xiao