That alert, raising the threat level from 1 to 2 on a four point scale, advised Americans to “exercise increased caution in China due to arbitrary enforcement of local laws as well as special restrictions on dual US-Chinese nationals.”
China has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with foreign students.
While around half a million international students
live in the country, and numerous prestigious Western institutions run or partner with universities in China — including New York University, Duke University and the University of Liverpool — foreign academics in particular have also been treated with suspicion.
In 2016, a propaganda poster released as part of National Security Education Day warned Chinese citizens that handsome foreigners could be seeking to steal sensitive information
The comic book-style poster showed a female named Xiao Li, being showered with compliments, red roses, fancy dinners and romantic walks in the park by David, a “visiting scholar researching issues about China” who persuades her to share internal government documents.
Academics and even some students visiting China have complained about being watched and followed by police, or dragged in for questioning about their research and who they are speaking to in the country.
As well as warning “do not sign anything,” the new UC guidance instructs staff to “be cautious of lengthy Q&A or interrogation to avoid inadvertently providing any information that may be distorted to deny departure or facilitate an arrest.”
In the past, concerns have mainly focused on people’s public pronouncements or statements to the authorities, but the new guidance suggests officials are concerned that even private comments could be used against academics and students.
‘New level of suppression’
UC’s concerns would appear to be well founded. China is increasingly cracking down on previously tolerated spheres of dissent, with even private comments being policed.
In recent months, the authorities have “detained or summoned dozens or more (Chinese) Twitter users, forcing them to delete sensitive tweets or close their accounts,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW)
. “In some cases, authorities appear to have hacked accounts themselves.”
Twitter is blocked inside China and while a tiny number of Chinese dissidents and activists do use the platform, their influence is limited and in the past they were mostly ignored by the authorities.
While tweets are public, the Chinese authorities have in the past also pursued people for things they say in private, particularly on Tencent’s messaging app WeChat, which has a track record of conforming with government censorship and surveillance.
In a report on privacy protections in messaging apps, Amnesty International ranked
Tencent zero out of 100, and WeChat has been accused
of reading users’ messages and storing data. While Tencent has denied reading messages, under a new Chinese cyber security law, tech firms must store logs and relevant data for at least six months and provide them to the authorities when requested.
“Numerous instances have shown that Chinese authorities have access to private chats on WeChat,” HRW’s Yaqiu Wang told CNN.
“The crackdown on Chinese Twitter users and the punishment leveled against WeChat users for their private messages show that authorities have become increasingly intolerant of speeches that are either private or anonymous.”
While WhatsApp — which boasts end-to-end encryption and overseas servers without a backdoor for the Chinese authorities — is in theory far more secure than WeChat or other Chinese messaging apps, if authorities are able to compromise a target’s phone
with malware or other methods
, encryption will not protect them.
Experts have long warned against using WeChat for anything sensitive, even as the sheer dominance of the app makes it difficult to avoid entirely in China.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say I live in and work on WeChat,” New York Times technology columnist Li Yuan wrote recently
, adding that surveillance fears are “just the way of life.”
“The reality is that ordinary Chinese often feel powerless and fatalistic when it comes to censorship and surveillance,” she said.