SHANGHAI — As China tries to reshape the narrative of its fumbled response to the coronavirus outbreak, it is turning to a new breed of police that carry out real-world reprisals for digital misdeeds.
The internet police, as they are known here, have gained power as the Communist Party has worked to seize greater control over the thoughts, words, and even memories of China’s 800 million web users. Now, they are emerging as a bulwark against the groundswell of anger over governance breakdowns that exacerbated the epidemic.
Officers arrive with an unexpected rap at the door of online critics. They drag off offenders for hours of interrogation. They force their targets to sign loyalty pledges and recant remarks deemed politically unacceptable, even if those words were made in the relative privacy of a group chat.
In the central city of Chengdu, a recent law school graduate, Li Yuchen, said he was pulled from his home in early February after writing a sarcastic treatise in classical Chinese about censorship. The police questioned him from late afternoon until midnight, first asking him whether he loved his country, to which he said yes. Mr. Li said he was forced to sign a statement disavowing his views and pledging loyalty to the party.
The experience mirrored what happened to the hero of Mr. Li’s essay, a Wuhan doctor named Li Wenliang, who tried to alert colleagues about the spread of a mysterious virus in a chat group, only to be called to a police station and forced to sign a confession for spreading rumors.
When Dr. Li died of the coronavirus, waves of mourning and anger swept across China’s internet.
“Li Wenliang said that a healthy society shouldn’t have only one voice,” wrote Mr. Li, who is not related to Dr. Li. “I think the best way to mourn him is to continue to be a citizen” and continue writing, he wrote in a later post on WeChat.
That has become more difficult. To stanch anger over Dr. Li’s death, and the deaths of the many others his warning might have saved, authorities have doubled down on the very tactics that drove the fury in the first place: using the internet police to muffle the most outspoken.
Little is known about the group, formally part of the Cybersecurity Defense Bureau, which has long policed hacking and online fraud. But occasional government releases offer clues. In 2016, the 50-million person region of Guangxi said it had almost 1,200 internet police officers. The goal was to have one internet police officer for every 10,000 people in the region, a sign of the force’s ambitions.
In the early years of Chinese social media, punishments doled out to critics were rarely severe. As millions took to clones of Twitter and Facebook, which are banned in China, censorship usually meant disappearing posts and inaccessible foreign websites. Now the police actively pursue the authors of forbidden material, and irritation has been replaced by fear.
Friends and families warn each other not to speak too openly in group chats. The changes have come as China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has pushed hard to extend the party’s iron-fisted rule over the internet.
Mr. Xi has given new resources to domestic security forces. The internet police’s uncanny speed in finding people, who might believe they are hidden among the internet’s hordes of anonymous grumblers, is the result of billions of dollars in new spending on surveillance technology.
China’s Ministry of Public Security, which controls the police, did not respond to requests for comment, including the role of the internet police in silencing Dr. Li. But experts said the statement he signed and later posted online matched the types of letters the internet police force online critics to endorse.
“One reason for the online outrage after Li Wenliang’s death was because people know that what he encountered is just a normal Chinese person’s experience,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not the local police’s fault. It’s Xi’s error that this kind of thing has become a part of daily life.”
Mr. Xi moved quickly to coordinate online oversight after he took over in 2012. He created a new organization, the Cyberspace Administration of China, to coordinate censorship online and suppress social-media influencers who didn’t always toe the party line.
The 2015 emergence of the internet police signaled Mr. Xi’s ambitions to take online suppression to an even greater level. That year local police stations created social media accounts to highlight internet arrests.
Before long, the internet police became the state’s sharpest tool for prodding online rabble rousers into silence. Often hanging back and monitoring, officers would tap local law enforcement to pull offenders in and question them — what they called “touching the ground.” Placed at increasingly local police stations, they have carried out campaigns cracking down on everything from telecom fraud to use of Twitter.
Before the coronavirus epidemic, their focus was the protests in Hong Kong.
Bole Cheng, a 45-year old financial worker, got called in last autumn. He had lost his cool during a debate about Hong Kong and referred to Mr. Xi with a pun that means “Little Wicked.” Two days later, two officers were at his door.
“They said I was talking drivel on WeChat and there was a problem, so I had to go to the station with them,” he said. During five hours of interrogation, they told Mr. Cheng they used an artificial-intelligence powered search engine to find him.
In the coming months, they contacted him twice more. Once they bragged that their powers were expanding, and they had been given new national security responsibilities. Another time, Mr. Cheng discussed George Orwell with a young officer, who sought to distance his work from what is described in “1984.”
“He was trying to show that he read books, and that the stories weren’t about China. That Orwell wasn’t talking about us,” he said.
When the police threatened to make it difficult for his son to attend school, Mr. Cheng gave in and signed a letter promising to refrain from discussing Hong Kong and to stop insulting the country’s leader.
Mr. Xiao, of Berkeley, said internet police activity has only intensified during the coronavirus outbreak. Sporadic government reports attest to this. In the first weeks of the year, the police in the region of Guangxi investigated 385 people for spreading rumors. In Qinghai Province, they pulled in 72. In the Ningxia region, another 66.
Online censors have been working overtime too. Since Dr. Li’s death, he has become a censored topic. Huge numbers of posts and accounts have disappeared from social media.
“Since social media has existed in China, there’s been nothing like the current explosion of speech,” said Hannah Yeung, who runs an online group dedicated to preserving posts, which she calls the cyber graveyard. So tight has the censorship become in recent weeks, she said she feared Chinese people were losing the ability to chronicle the past.
“After people scream and shout, their posts get deleted and there’s no more voice of opposition. Nothing gets fixed,” she said.
Early signs indicate the campaign has at least partially succeeded. The Chinese internet is filled with apparently sincere praise for the government’s efforts. Records of early missteps are mostly gone.
That success poses its own threats. If local or regional officials bury problems, the country’s leaders could miss early warnings of major crises, like the warnings doctors in Wuhan issued in early January.
When Miles Zhang went on a business trip in early January to Wuhan, he was one of the few ready for the outbreak. He wore goggles and a mask at the insistence of his wife, who had read online about the crackdown against Dr. Li before the news was censored.
“I really stood out,” he recalled. The precautions may have saved him from getting the coronavirus, which was then quietly spreading across the city.
Such interest in blocked information had gotten Mr. Zhang in trouble only the year before. In September, the police dragged him in for questioning over his use of a software to thwart the government’s internet filters. After hours of interrogation, they threw him out onto the street. Stunned at the experience, he walked the several kilometers home to his worried family.
Just back from a trip to Canada, he began planning to leave China for good.
“I used to think the censorship was a technical problem that could be overcome,” Mr. Zhang said. “But this time was like a smack to the head. This is state terrorism.”
Lin Qiqing contributed research from Shanghai.