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RPT-EXCLUSIVE-Chinese province targets journalists, foreign students with planned new surveillance system

Mon 29th November, 2021 11:33pm
(Repeats item first published on Monday; no change to text)
    BEIJING, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Security officials in one of
China's largest provinces have commissioned a surveillance
system they say they want to use to track journalists and
international students among other "suspicious people",
documents reviewed by Reuters showed.     
    A July 29 tender document published on the Henan provincial
government’s procurement website - reported in the media for the
first time - details plans for a system that can compile
individual files on such persons of interest coming to Henan
using 3,000 facial recognition cameras that connect to various
national and regional databases. 
    A 5 million yuan ($782,000) contract was awarded on Sept. 17
to Chinese tech company Neusoft  600718.SS , which was required
to finish building the system within two months of signing the
contract, separate documents published on the Henan government
procurement website showed. Reuters was unable to establish if
the system is currently operating.
    Shenyang-based Neusoft did not respond to requests for
comment.
    China is trying to build what some security experts describe
as one of the world's most sophisticated surveillance technology
networks https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-monitoring-insight-idUSKBN1KZ0R3,
 with millions of cameras in public places and increasing use of
techniques such as smartphone monitoring and facial recognition.
    U.S.-based surveillance research firm IPVM, which has
closely tracked the network's expansion and first identified the
Henan document, said the tender was unique in specifying
journalists as surveillance targets and providing a blueprint
for public security authorities to quickly locate them and
obstruct their work. 
    "While the PRC has a documented history of detaining and
punishing journalists for doing their jobs, this document
illustrates the first known instance of the PRC building
custom security technology to streamline state suppression of
journalists," said IPVM'S Head of Operations Donald Maye, using
the initials of the People's Republic of China. 
    Reuters was unable to find any documents identifying
journalists or foreigners as specific targets of surveillance
systems in other parts of China. 
    The Henan provincial government and police did not respond
to requests for comment. The Ministry of Public Security and
China's Foreign Ministry also did not comment. 
    
    "TAILED AND CONTROLLED"
    The near-200 page tender document from the Henan Public
Security Department does not give reasons why it wants to track
journalists or international students. Another category of
people it said it wants to track were "women from neighbouring
countries that are illegal residents."
    Public access to the tender document was disabled on Monday.
    The tender document specified cameras must be able to build
a relatively accurate file for individuals whose faces are
partially covered by a mask or glasses, and those targeted must
be searchable on the database by simply uploading a picture or
searching their facial attributes. 
    The system will be operated by at least 2,000 officials and
policemen, and specifies that journalists will be divided into
three categories: red, yellow, green, in decreasing order of
risk, according to the tender.
    Different police forces covering all of Henan, whose 99
million inhabitants makes it China's third-largest province by
population, will be connected to the platform in order to spring
into action in the event of a warning being set off, the tender
explains.
    Warnings will be set off if a journalist while in Henan
registers into a hotel, buys a ticket, or crosses the provincial
border, according to the tender.    
    "Suspicious persons must be tailed and controlled, dynamic
research analyses and risk assessments made, and the journalists
dealt with according to their category," the tender reads.
    The tender also detailed different early warning systems for
the other groups.
    
    MEDIA CONTROL
    Some press freedom groups say the ruling Chinese Communist
Party has tightened control over media since Chinese President
Xi Jinping took office in 2012.
    In February, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China
(FCCC) said China used coronavirus prevention measures https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-media-idUSKCN2AT182,
 intimidation and visa curbs to limit foreign reporting in 2020,
citing responses to an annual survey of correspondents and
interviews with bureau chiefs.
    The Chinese foreign ministry at the time called the FCCC
report "baseless" and said China always welcomed media and
journalists from all countries to cover news in China according
to the law. "What we oppose is ideological bias against China
and fake news in the name of press freedom," a spokesman said.
    While most of the Henan document refers to journalists,
several segments specify "foreign journalists". 
    In October last year, the Henan government published on its
procurement platform for prospective suppliers a short summary
of the intended project in which it said the system would be
"centred on foreigners" and help "protect national sovereignty,
security, and interests".
    The contract was put out for tender on July 29, days after
foreign journalists from the BBC, LA Times, Agence France-Presse
and others reporting on devastating floods in Henan were
targeted by a nationalist campaign on China's heavily censored
social media platform Weibo. 
    The FCCC said at the time https://twitter.com/fccchina/status/1419946356995629057
 it was "very concerned to witness the online and offline
harassment of journalists" covering the floods. It described
how, for instance, one Weibo account asked its 1.6 million
followers to report the whereabouts of a foreign journalist who
was reporting about the floods.
    The tender also said the system should be able to track the
movements of international students through methods such as
mobile phone positioning and travel bookings - particularly
during key dates such as the country's national day or annual
session of parliament. 
    "On...sensitive dates, launch a wartime early warning
mechanism," it read. 
($1 = 6.3924 Chinese yuan renminbi)

 (Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)
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