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
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
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
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.
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
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