What does a mobile phone thief from Hangzhou have in common with IT workers at the internet firm Zhihu?
The answer is surveillance.
This month two stories highlight the degree to which Chinese citizens are tracked and monitored: both by the state and their employers.
The first involves a man called Zhang who allegedly stole several handsets and a laptop from a shop in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
To make his getaway he called a cab on a ride hailing app. But a few minutes into the ride the driver, a man named Hua, received a call from the police notifying him that the man in his car was wanted. They instructed Hua, aged 58, to deliver his passenger to a police station and Hua duly rerouted.
“[We] located Zhang and discovered that he was in an online car-hailing vehicle through Big Data,” the local police announced on its Sina Weibo account.
Few queried the tracking tactics in this case – after all, efforts to reduce crime and improve public safety are some of the strongest arguments the Chinese state has for building out its massive surveillance network.
But in the case of workers being monitored for signs that they might resign, netizens were less happy. The story centres around a former employee of the Q&A website Zhihu, who claimed he was fired after the company had used software made by Sangfor Technologies to assess whether he was committed to his employer or looking for another job.
The clandestine programme monitors web activity – particularly visits to recruitment sites or any touching up of your online resume – and evaluates how likely you are to resign. Employers use the software to predict where positions could become vacant, as well as which staff to fire if they need to make cuts.
“It’s called a labour MARKET. Workers should not be penalised for keeping their options open.” wrote one angry weibo user. “Surely this violates our privacy?” demanded another.
Chinese workers – especially in the tech sector – are often subjected to tracking and monitorin apps designed to enhance productivity. In October 2020 the video platform Kuaishou was called out for putting timers over the bathrooms stalls, while last year a Hangzhou tech firm was found to be using “smart” cushions which monitored the amount of time employees spent at their desks.
Other “productivity” measures include blocking phone signals in the bathrooms and putting beds in offices to keep staff there longer.
“Signing a contract is like signing away your soul,” one popular weibo comment declared after the news emerged that Zhihu was using Sangfor’s resignation prediction software.
Yet even in the case of the taxi driver (and the thief he drove to the police station), there was a little dissent at the methods: “Did the police endanger driver Hua by asking him to bring Zhang to them?” one asked.
“If the criminal had been a murderer, would they have done the same?” another queried.“If they can track a man to a moving car on a taxi app they can go meet the car at the destination,” wrote another, adding that the police looked a little “lazy” for having driver Hua do all the work for them.
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