A Chinese police department’s video of a male officer dressing up as a woman went viral on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, in early March. The response was largely light-hearted, with many users jokingly complimenting the officer’s new appearance, but the video is a reminder of Chinese authorities’ recent crackdowns on the use of fake identities on dating sites, a method known as catfishing – and of their continued push to control citizens' online activity.

In the clip, a male officer in a wig and a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “suspect” in Chinese is seen disguising himself as a woman. Sporting bright lipstick, his face whitened with powder, he flirts with the camera and playfully tugs at his lips before being handcuffed by another officer in uniform, who warns viewers to be wary of meeting potential romantic partners online.

“A reminder from the Shunde police: be careful when using online dating services,” the officer says. “Online romance can be risky.”

A video, posted on March 8 on Weibo by the Shunde district police, alerting Chinese netizens of potential catfishing scams.

The exaggerated disguise donned by the officer is a reference to catfishing, in which scam artists post fake identities online – usually those of young, attractive women – in order to lure potential suitors.

The video went viral after it was posted on the official Weibo account of the Shunde district police in Foshan, a city in southern China, on March 8. Many users were amused by the makeover, jokingly asking for details of the lipstick the officer was wearing and commenting, “Let him go, we’re really in love!”

Weibo user comments from top to bottom: “Let him go, we’re really in love!” "Sir, how did you discover this young man's cross-dressing skills?" "What lipstick number is this? I want to get it for my wife."

The repercussions of these types of online dating scams, however, can be serious. Many victims are swindled out of thousands of dollars when they are persuaded by the fake “girlfriend” to send money or invest in dubious products.

The Chinese government has doubled down on dating fraud in recent years. Last August, around 60 members of an organised scam ring in Suqian, near the eastern coast, were sentenced to up to 11 years for committing fraud totaling more than 1 million yuan, or around €130,000. The group posed as young women on the messaging app WeChat and, after gaining the trust of their male targets, pretended to have gotten into traffic accidents and asked the men to send thousands of yuan to cover the costs. In June 2018, police in the southern Guangdong province apprehended over a dozen gangs, whose members used photos of models in their fake profiles and concocted family tragedies in order to get their victims to buy expensive tea.

The police crackdowns are part of a larger effort by Chinese authorities to rein in the use of fake identities online. In 2017, new measures were put in place requiring users to register on dating sites with their real names. The government also announced a plan to increase regulation of the dating industry and steer its citizens towards state-run matchmaking platforms, such as Communist Youth League dating groups.

"You have to ask who is the real target"

Alain Wang, a Paris-based expert on digital growth in China, says that these types of tactics are another way for the government to control users’ online activity. While the measures are ostensibly aimed at regulating online dating services, the tightening control over the use of fake identities suggests that authorities are also seeking to use the incidents to ramp up censorship and surveillance.

When the government announces something like this, you have to ask who is the real target. It’s a policy that sets up a system that further controls what people who oppose the regime might post online. They often work this way, using a society-level incident to go a little bit further in surveillance.

Fake identities are a digital tool, and a pretty common one used by people who want to criticise the government or disseminate information. That’s what they’re really scared of.

This type of control happened with Weibo. Weibo became too viral, so they cracked down and sent people on to WeChat, which is more of a closed chatroom, or like an improved Whatsapp. They found another system that allowed them to control users more easily, and that has no viral potential.

This story was written by Jenny Che (@jsyche).