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Police haul in China-based X followers of citizen journalist Mr Li

China’s state security police are putting pressure on people living in China to unfollow a prominent citizen journalist on X, according to a recent post from the account.

Police are combing through the follower list of the account @whyyoutouzhele, “Mr Li is not your teacher,” and hauling them in individually to get them to unfollow the account, according to the journalist, who regularly posts video clips and photos of events as they happen in China to X, defying tight controls on media reporting and online content by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“The Ministry of Public Security is currently checking through the people on my 1.6 million-strong followers list and in the comments,” the account tweeted on Feb. 25. 

By Feb. 27, the account, which rose to prominence by posting on-the-ground footage of “white paper” protests across China in November 2022, only listed 1.4 million followers, suggesting that the plan was having some effect.

“Once [followers’] identities are confirmed, local police are alerted to call people to drink tea,” it said, using a euphemism for being interviewed by the state security police.

While state security police typically target dissidents, rights activists and petitioners for questioning, anyone can be summoned for questioning merely for posting content that is subsequently picked up by foreign media.

Authorities in China are pressuring followers of the X account @whyyoutouzhele, shown, also known as 'Mr Li is not your teacher.' (X)
Authorities in China are pressuring followers of the X account @whyyoutouzhele, shown, also known as ‘Mr Li is not your teacher.’ (X)

The “Mr Li” account called on its followers in China to unfollow its account and use the search box to find its tweets instead, and warned named bloggers with accounts in China that they are more likely to be targeted.

“Do not use your real name, pinyin, QQ number, WeChat ID and other accounts, avatar, or the same content as you do for your social media accounts inside China,” they warned.

Account warnings

A resident of the southwestern city of Chengdu who gave only the surname Zhang for fear of reprisals said “Mr Li” is “an idol” among younger social media users in mainland China who are able to use circumvention tools to get around the Great Firewall of internet censorship.

“They like to read through the news he posts, and there are people who also take the initiative to break news to him,” Zhang said. “That’s why the police are going after such people.”

The account also warned that while police would mostly be looking to push people into unfollowing, they could also try to “trick” them into revealing more information about their online activities.

“At present, their detection methods are very crude and they can only confirm each account one by one … so don’t worry too much, you have time to make the above preparations,” the account said, warning users to avoid using mobile phones made in China “especially Huawei products … including routers.”

The user said it was “unbelievable” that the police are combing through their list of followers one by one, but “recently I found that this is actually true … they really are using the most basic methods.”

The account also posted screenshots of private messages between the account-holder and their followers over the past few months, containing individual accounts of being “called in to drink tea,” and even of being fired as a result of following the account.

A man walks past an office of the Cyberspace Administration of China in Beijing, July 8, 2021.(Thomas Peter/Reuters)
A man walks past an office of the Cyberspace Administration of China in Beijing, July 8, 2021.(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Japan-based Chinese current affairs commentator Wuyue Sanren said his follower count has also taken a nosedive in recent weeks.

“In my case, I’ve lost 27,000 X followers and 18,000 YouTube subscribers,” the blogger tweeted on Feb. 27.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal and I don’t care,” the blogger wrote. “It is understandable for ordinary people to be afraid, and there is no shame in it.”

Removing unapproved content

The reports come as China’s Cyberspace Administration steps up its campaign to remove unapproved content from Chinese social media platforms, reporting that it revoked the licenses of more than 10,000 websites in 2023, and hauled in more than 10,000 “for interviews.”

The websites were being targeted for “spreading false information, incitement of confrontation and other harmful content,” state news agency Xinhua reported on Jan. 31.

Current affairs commentator Bi Xin said people have been using codes, homophones and other forms of disguised speech for years to evade government censors.

Now, the government is also increasingly targeting content in different Chinese languages including Cantonese, Hokkien and the Wu dialect to ensure that speakers of those languages are also monitored while online.

Online recruitment ads viewed by RFA this week offered salaries of up to 9,000 yuan a month for native speakers of such languages to review content for compliance with the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s goal of “public opinion management.”

“There is a gap in the government’s system of monitoring, which is comments made in different dialects,” Bi said. “That’s why they’re recruiting speakers of those dialects as monitors.”

Shandong resident An Ting said the move is likely a response to fears of social unrest amid economic hardship among the residents of southern and southeastern coastal regions like Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, which are “culturally distinct” from northern China, and have a “culturally and psychologically distant relationship with the imperial power in the north [the government in Beijing].”

“The authorities are stepping up control because they are concerned about growing centrifugal tendencies in those regions,” An said. “They’re getting in there while they still can.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.