In China, evading the watchful eyes of the government sometimes feels like an exercise in futility. The place is wired with about 200 million surveillance cameras, Beijing controls the telecom companies, and every internet company has to hand over data when the police want it. They also know where journalists live because we register our address with police. In Shanghai, the police regularly come to my apartment; once they demanded to come inside.
That said, China is big, and the government less than competent. Sometimes the police who come to my door have no idea I’m a journalist. Usually the higher-ups who deal with my visa don’t know about the house visits. The lack of coordination means one of the best things to do is to try to slip through the cracks. Basically, protect yourself but also leave an innocent trace.
It’s also important to realize that because Beijing controls the telecoms, your domestic phone number can be a liability. For secure apps like Signal, I toggle the registration lock so that if they try to mirror my phone, my account still has a layer of protection.
To get around the Great Firewall, I use a few different VPNs, which I won’t name because when we do bring them up they usually get new government attention.
In some parts of China, the police will demand to check your phone, usually to delete photos. Having two phones helps with this — to make it even trickier, I have the same case on both phones. But it’s also good to have other ways to protect your data. I use a few apps that disguise themselves as something innocuous but in fact hide and protect data. It’s also always handy to have a USB drive that can plug into your phone and be used to save stuff quickly.
In some cases, it’s not possible to get around the government, and you have to make a judgment call about whether the source understands the risks and how severe the punishment might be. Sometimes we go places and it’s not possible to safely interview people, so we don’t. The government frequently wins.
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