Tea Leaf Nation

Welcome to the Uighur Web

Amid police crackdowns and stifling censorship, one Chinese ethnic minority struggles to be heard online.

China's Internet is vast, with millions of sites and more than 618 million users. But nest-egged within that universe is a tiny virtual community comprising just a few thousand websites where China's Uighurs, the country's fifth-largest ethnic minority with a population of approximately 11 million, gather online to communicate in their own language and script.

This is the Uighur web. The space can be defined as the Internet as it exists within the borders of China's far western autonomous region of Xinjiang, the homeland of the Turkic-language-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighur minority. It can also be seen as the Uighur-focused Internet perused by Uighurs across China. In both cases, content and access are tightly controlled.

Because of sporadic violence that the Chinese government blames on a simmering separatist movement, authorities are vigilant about scouring the Uighur web for material that they think could incite unrest. After ethnic riots in the regional capital of Urumqi left at least 197 people dead in July 2009, Xinjiang's web was unplugged for 10 months, stranding 22 million people of all ethnicities offline.

Xinjiang has "gained independence on the Internet, separated from the Internet world," blogged journalist and blogger Wang Dahao wryly a few months into the shutdown. "It was absolutely unbearable," Zheng Liang, a lecturer at Xinjiang University in Urumqi, who researches media and ethnic minorities, told Foreign Policy. "I had to fly to another province to get to my emails."

Authorities in Xinjiang continue to reach for the Internet kill switch when violence flares, though the shutdowns now are more targeted. When a reporter for the New York Times visited the remote oasis town of Hotan in southern Xinjiang in August 2013 to report on a violent clash between Uighurs and police on June 28, 2013, he found that cell-phone service in the area had been cut for weeks following the incident and that residents still had no Internet access.

Given all that, the Internet penetration rate in Xinjiang appears surprisingly high. According to statistics from the government-run China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), Xinjiang is the 11th-most connected region in China out of 31 ranked, with 43 percent of its population online, and an annual penetration growth rate of 9.1 percent. Zheng says smartphone use is the dominant form of access and that his Uighur students and friends are "addicted" to the Internet. Especially popular is WeChat, a Chinese homegrown messaging app that has become a common way to stay in touch and share news.

In February 2014, Zheng was at a Uighur song-and-dance performance in Yopurga county near the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar. He saw Uighur farmers lifting their phones to take photos of the show. Zheng says he "didn't notice such popularity of smartphones two years ago."

On the other hand, CNNIC's numbers also show that there are relatively few registered websites and IP addresses in Xinjiang. Xinjiang had only about 6,000 websites in 2012, compared with almost 400,000 in the capital, Beijing, in the same year. The disparity likely means that people in Xinjiang want to be connected but are loath to set up their own sites.

Enver Uyghur, the web editor for Radio Free Asia online, a nonprofit, U.S.-based media outlet, estimates that there are just under 2,000 Uighur-language sites in China, many of them listed on the Ulinix.com web portal, which catalogs useful and popular sites. Most of the sites are written in the Arabic script that became standard in the 1980s, not the Latin script that once dominated and is still generally preferred by Uighurs outside China. (Many Uighurs can switch easily between the different scripts, and some also know the alternative Cyrillic script, a relic of Soviet influence in the region.)

The small number of Xinjiang-based sites shouldn't be surprising given the government crackdown on webmasters and online journalists following the violence of July 2009. In the immediate aftermath, authorities blamed exiled Uighurs for using the Internet to organize the July 5, 2009, protest in Urumqi that turned violent, with Uighur mobs attacking and killing majority Han Chinese in the streets. Han Chinese then retaliated, leading to more deaths. Dozens of Uighur website founders, editors, and writers received lengthy prison terms, including Gulmira Imin, a moderator and contributor to the now-defunct Uighur-language Salkin website, which featured news and cultural discussion as well as a discussion forum. Imin was sentenced to life in prison for "splittism, leaking state secrets, and organizing an illegal demonstration." Dilshat Perhat, webmaster and owner of Diyarim, which was similar in content to Salkin and also had a lively forum, was sentenced to five years in prison for "endangering state security." The Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association says hundreds of other sites were also shut down.

A few months after the Urumqi violence, Xinjiang approved a law that made it a crime to post comments about independence or separatism online (the regional law reinforced already existing national legislation that bars seditious talk in cyberspace). The law also required Internet service providers and network operators to monitor and report any lawbreakers. This has put "intense political pressure" on webmasters and dissuaded people from opening new sites, said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in an interview with FP. "It can be very risky to open a website," Seytoff said. "If you have a chat room and in the middle of the night somebody posts something seditious, the next day the webmaster will have a big problem."

On Chinese social media sites, content is mainly scrubbed by in-house net nannies. The responsibility lies with the service provider to make sure that illegal content doesn't show up on the provider's sites. Researchers have found that China's "restive" regions -- areas bubbling with ethnic hostilities and plagued by poverty -- have the most stringently censored social media environments. A Carnegie Mellon University study published in 2012 found that more than half of social media posts surveyed from Tibet and Qinghai and more than 25 percent posted from Xinjiang were deleted, while only about 10 percent of those in Beijing and Shanghai were erased.*

The consequences for posting anything vaguely political can be chilling. In December 2011, when Uighur undergraduate Atikem Rozi complained on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, about not being able to get a passport, police brought her in for questioning. Even Chinese state media appeared aghast at Rozi's treatment and said the case smacked of ethnic discrimination.

More troubling is the case of Rozi's boyfriend, Mutellip Imin, a Uighur from Xinjiang who has been studying in Turkey. He also worked as a moderator for Uighur Online, a bilingual website founded by detained Uighur economist Ilham Tohti. The site has been blocked in China since 2008 and is hosted in the United States. Tohti was detained in January and has been charged with inciting separatism, a charge that could carry a life sentence.

Several weeks before Tohti was detained, 26-year-old Imin posted a disturbing account of his detention and harassment by Chinese government authorities. Imin said he was detained at the Beijing airport in July 2013 while trying to fly back to Istanbul after a summer holiday. He was held for 79 days in three different Xinjiang hotels. He said he was never arrested or charged.

Imin wrote on his personal blog that authorities forced him to give over the passwords to his mobile phone, computer, and email, chat, and social media accounts. He wrote that he was also forced to read a statement in Uighur and Mandarin Chinese -- one penned by authorities -- while police videotaped him. It included statements that Imin's "eyes were blinded by Ilham Tohti" and that Imin had "played a very bad role on the Internet." Imin wrote that police were concerned that he was linked to Uighur independence groups overseas, something he denied. Imin was detained again in January 2014, according to Radio Free Asia, and has not been heard from since. Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, says Imin's case is "quite emblematic of the restrictions facing Uighurs" and "the dire consequences for freely expressing your opinions online."

While it's possible for Uighurs or others in Xinjiang to access forbidden content through proxy servers, which provide online anonymity, most shy away from this option because the government clearly associates such use with terrorism and crime. In March, Xinjiang's top Communist Party official, Zhang Chunxian, told reporters at the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, that 90 percent of "violent terrorists" use virtual private networks, which obscure a computer's location, to circumvent China's web controls and watch extremist videos. He didn't elaborate and offered no proof to back up the assertion.

The cumulative effect of the tight controls has been the evolution of a highly filtered and homogenized Uighur web. Issues like discrimination, bilingual education for children, religion, and unemployment are among the many dangerous or off-limits topics. Instead, users tend to stick to music videos, shopping, parenting advice, fashion, and dating, says Seytoff.

Zheng, the Xinjiang University lecturer, agrees. Zheng speaks and reads Uighur and regularly looks at Uighur-language sites. He says the space is "less dynamic" than what's on the rest of the Chinese web. "Owners are too afraid to get in trouble, so they self-censor," he says, adding that he has observed an increasing number of Uighurs moving to Chinese platforms where discussions are "more dynamic, interesting, and influential."

That's a big contrast to the Uighur diaspora web, according to Paris-based scholar Dilnur Reyhan in a 2012 survey of Internet use by Uighurs. Whereas websites "in the diaspora are highly political," she wrote, websites in Xinjiang "are more self-[censoring] than ever before." Such is life on the true Uighur web.

*Correction, May 16, 2014: This article originally misstated the portion of social media posts made from Xinjiang that a 2012 Carnegie Mellon study found to be deleted. It was over 25 percent, not over 50 percent. (Return to reading.)

Photo: WeChat/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

The Limits of Mandopop

With mainland money flooding into Taiwanese celebrity coffers, activism takes a back seat.

Everyone in Taiwan seems to have an opinion about the island's controversial trade agreement with mainland China, which would open up Taiwan to further mainland investment. College-age students paralyzed the island's legislature for more than three weeks from mid-March to early April to protest its hasty passage. Over 100,000 marched on the streets to clamor for its withdrawal. (As of this writing, the pact has not been anulled.) But one group of Taiwanese with a great deal of name recognition, deep media expertise, and ample experience with China has chosen to hold their tongues: Top Taiwanese celebrities, who have observed a studious silence in the weeks of raging debate over Taiwan's future.

Some celebrities who did speak -- albeit sotto voce -- are part of mega-popular Taiwanese alternative rock band Mayday. Shortly after students occupied Taiwan's legislature on March 18, a link to Mayday's rousing song "Rise Up" appeared on lead vocalist Ashin's page on Facebook, the social network of choice in Taiwan. On the same day, Mayday bassist Masa closed the coffee shop he owns in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, posting a paper note urging customers to join the rally outside the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's law-making body. "We cannot sacrifice the future of Taiwan just for a bit of business," the note read. Taiwanese fans interpreted these posts as Mayday's endorsement of the occupation, and "Rise Up" soon became the protest's de facto anthem.

Even such cursory support for the movement incurred a heavy cost. In the aftermath, China's largest microblogging platform, Weibo, lit up with messages accusing Ashin and Masa of being "pro-Taiwan independence" -- almost an epithet on the mainland -- and "breaking the hearts of Chinese citizens." (Ashin has 18.2 million followers on Weibo, while Masa has 320,000.) A few days later, a rumor circulated that Chinese authorities had blacklisted Mayday and banned their music from China's largest radio station, Music Radio.

The group tried to patch things up, insisting on Weibo that Mayday was in fact not opposed to the trade pact. Ashin removed the "Rise Up" post from Facebook. At a March 22 concert in New York's Madison Square Garden, he referred to the protests only obliquely, choking up as he delivered an emotionally wrought but vague speech about his concerns for the future. Mayday drew a large adoring crowd at a sponsorship event in Beijing's Forbidden Palace in early April, refuting the rumor they had been banned. All appeared well again, but Mayday's brush with the collective ire of millions of Chinese fans surely did not go unnoticed.   

Show business ranks near the top of service industries that are highly integrated between the mainland and Taiwan. Many Taiwanese celebrities enjoy enormous popularity across the Strait, scoring juicy endorsement deals with international brands and Chinese companies. According to Apple Daily, a Taiwanese newspaper, Mayday commanded almost $1 million per sponsorship deal in mainland China in 2013, but less than $200,000 in Taiwan. Other top Taiwanese celebrities posted similar numbers. Ashin, with 18.3 million followers, is only the 17th most followed Taiwanese on Weibo. Actress-producer Ruby Lin has more than 56 million followers, or more than twice the total population of Taiwan.

Higher pay in a larger market is the main attraction for Taiwanese entertainers. An April 2013 article in Want Daily, a Taiwanese newspaper, claimed that Taiwanese stars made approximately five times more if they work in a mainland television production than they would in a local production in Taiwan. The article also states that Taiwanese directors, producers, and cinematographers are paid more across the Strait than on the island. The average budget per episode for mainland variety shows is reportedly at least twice the Taiwanese average, and sometimes tenfold, or more.

As Mandarin popular music hits (also known as "Mandopop") bounce on airwaves from Taipei to Shanghai and Beijing, Taiwanese musicians who have already established deep roots in the mainland cannot afford to lose support from their Chinese fans. In Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and Its Cultural Connotations, author Marc L. Moskowitz explains that while the unchecked piracy of cassette tapes and CDs, beginning in the mid-1980's, helped make Taiwanese Mandopop popular in China, the subsequent downloading of MP3s ultimately caused huge losses for the industry as a whole, dragging down annual revenue from $500 million in 1996 to $94 million in 2005. To remain lucrative, Moskowitz writes, Mandopop bands like Mayday, formed in 1999, have had to rely on profits from concerts, as well as from sponsorship, movies, and licensing deals with karaoke bars. They can make more from all of these sectors in the mainland.    

Chika Lin, a spokeswoman for Mayday's record label, B'in Music, declined to tell Foreign Policy how much annual revenue the band earns in China, Taiwan, or elsewhere, saying the figures were "classified." But a survey of Mayday's touring schedule shows just how vital China is to the band's bottom line. According to a media kit distributed by B'in Music, Mayday performed 71 concerts in front of 2.48 million fans during their NOWHERE World Tour from December 23, 2011, to September 15, 2013. Fifty were held in China or Hong Kong, and only 15 in Taiwan. (Mayday also performed five concerts in Singapore and Malaysia and one in Los Angeles.) In 2012, on the tour's first two nights in Beijing, all 200,000 tickets to Beijing's signature Bird Nest Stadium sold out. Ticket prices for an August 17, 2013 Mayday concert at the Bird Nest Stadium ranged from $41 to $330.

Taiwanese celebrities rushing for Chinese gold in China run the risk alienating fans at home who have come to demand more from their performers. Like Western celebrities, Taiwanese entertainers are expected to use their cachet to promote awareness of social causes. Beginning around March 2011, more than a half-dozen controversial domestic issues sparked frequent protests and rallies in Taiwan, creating ample opportunities for Taiwanese celebrities in music, television, film, art and literature to get involved. Among the most popular: Taiwan's reliance on nuclear energy, legislation to prevent media monopolies, government seizure of land to build an industrial complex, and a soldier who fatally collapsed in 2013 during a punishment training exercise after speaking out against superiors.

As recently as September 2013, Mayday released a single called "Battle Song," its accompanying music video packed with heady symbolism and imagery including sketches of riot police standing behind barbed wire in front of the presidential building in Taipei, and nuclear power plants juxtaposed with mushroom clouds. At the time, Ashin remarked, "Don't ask me my views about [these] social causes. They are all written into the song." Taiwanese netizens proudly marveled over how "mainstream" entertainers like Mayday "dared to fool around like this."

Now, less than a year later, Mayday's vacillations on the occupation, also called the Sunflower Movement, have made the band appear Janus-faced. Lin, the B'in Music spokeswoman, explained to FP that Mayday "has never taken a stance on the trade agreement." Taiwanese fans, however, see it differently. In a March 31 open letter to Mayday posted on PTT, Taiwan's popular bulletin board service, also reported in Taiwan's mainstream media, an "old Mayday fan" wrote that it is understandable that Mayday's many "considerations" have rendered the band "unable to continue to have the courage of their convictions." The letter continued, "I can understand the importance of the Renminbi" -- China's currency -- "but don't tell me that the trust Taiwanese fans place in you is not important."

This frustration has cleared a space for lesser-known Taiwanese indie bands -- who don't have as much Renminbi on the line -- to channel the Zeitgeist of college-age student protesters. Arguably the most popular is Fire EX, formed in 2000, which wrote what has become the Sunflower Movement's theme song, "Island's Sunrise," replacing Mayday's "Rise Up." In a statement, lead vocalist Sam Yang told FP that he respects the opinions of both supporters and critics of the trade pact, but decided to back the Sunflower Movement because he "cannot accept the sloppy manner in which the government handled" negotiations over the trade pact. Yang said Fire EX, which stood with protesters outside the Legislative Yuan for six days before writing "Island's Sunrise," views its past and present participation in social movements as a way to "awaken even more people" to the "hardships" endured by others. Fire EX spokeswoman Jean Liu said the band "hasn't thought too much" about possible backlash from fans in China, even though they performed on the mainland last October.

It's too soon to tell what lasting impact, if any, the Sunflower Movement might have on Mayday or Taiwanese celebrities who have spoken out, remained quiet, or waffled on the trade-pact agreement. Taiwanese pop singer A-Mei, for instance, was blacklisted in China after performing at the 2000 inauguration of former President Chen Shui-bian, a pro-independence candidate, but later was able to salvage her seemingly doomed mainland career. On April 5, Mayday had no trouble attracting 12,000 Taiwanese to an outdoor performance in Kenting, a resort town in the south of Taiwan.

It's clear that celebrity tentativeness, backpedaling, or silence on sensitive cross-strait issues can have a chilling effect on Taiwanese celebrity activism, which protest organizers have increasingly used to foster awareness of social and political causes that otherwise might get overlooked. If Mayday, a veteran of the Mandopop circuit, finds itself so easily caught in a cultural tug-of-war between Chinese fans (now a big part of its ticket sales) and Taiwanese fans (who put the rock group on the map), Taiwanese entertainers chasing the China market might find their own celebrity activism increasingly governed by profits, not personal convictions, in an industry whose base continues to pivot toward the mainland. 

Photo: Getty Images