By: Michael Pullen, Paxton Rigby and Shane Walker
An investigation into the unjust censorship of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
Who: Chinese Uyghurs
What: Jihad Speech
Where: Xinjiang province, China
Why: Fear of “terrorism” combined with religious suppression
China’s population is divided into 56 minority groups, the majority being Han (approximately 91%). The Uyghur populations makes up the fourth largest minority group in China at around 0.75%, with much of the population living in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, commonly referred to East Turkestan (to reflect its Muslim ties), spans a rugged 640,000 square miles in Northwest China. Although the Uyghurs are a minority in China Muslims account for 58% of the population in the region. These ethnic and religious differences have led to tensions between the Uyghur region and the Chinese government. For example, Xinjiang has traditionally maintained an economy rooted in agriculture, however the territory is rich in oil and minerals. While it remains under the central government of China, local governments mainly run it.
Recently, the Uyghur population has become a target of censorship by the Chinese government, with close to 300 Uyghur’s being detained for so called “Jihad Talk.” Because the Uyghurs are primarily Muslim, the government fears this group’s potentiality for acts of terrorism.
In October 2013, the Xinjiang Newspaper reported that 256 people were being investigated and more than 100 people were detained for spreading “destabilizing rumors” online. The state media reported that police cracked down on people who were promoting jihad on the internet by recording videos and starting instant messaging groups to spread militant religious ideas (Reuters). According to the report, uploading such content violates the law. In a post 9/11 world, the word “jihad” connotes fear, but is the Chinese government using that as Safe Harbour for ulterior motives? Human right activists claim tht censoring this populations tramples freedom of speech. “Those Uyghurs who were detained were expressing online their dissatisfaction at China’s dominance of their localities and systematic repression,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress.
These roots of this censorship began in the 1990s when the Chinese Government increased the population of the Han Chinese in an attempt to integrate the Uyghurs socially and ethically in line with the Han and simultaneously imposed harsh religious restrictions (Hogg). The Uyghurs interpreted this noun needed as the Chinese government’s goal of “obliterating its identity and culture” (Weber). In July 2009, this noun needed came to a head, resulting in violent riots between the two groups and killing 197 people (Hogg). Phone calls and text and internet messages were believed to be the organizing sources behind the violence. The Uyghurs claimed the Han were favored by Chinese policies and that their culture, beliefs, and religious freedoms were being threatened. In response, China cut off all internet access, closed down Twitter, cleansed search results, and shut down cell phone service in Xinjiang for ten months. It was restored with the caveat that those who disseminated “harmful information” would face severe punishment (source needed). The Chinese government, meanwhile, maintained that its reforms had improved the Uyghurs’ living standards and claimed the violence was due to separatist groups and terrorists. Beijing news outlets labeled the protestors as “terrorists” who attempted to destabilize the country from within (Bezlova). In 2015, the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the National Security Law directly and indirectly, through purposely-vague language legislated restrictions of the Uyghurs to communicate via the internet (Zhou). Technology companies that specialize in online information and communication, such as messaging and audiovisual applications and storage, as well as their users were (and are) mandated to register with the government. Many of these companies based in Xinjiang have departments whose job it is to monitor content of the users (Marguleas).
Chinese oppression of Uyghur access to digital services and Uyghur digital speech is effectively suppressing Uyghur identity. China is not only preventing jihadist information from being disseminated, but also information about a broader religious communities and practices. By limiting connections to the broader Muslim world, the Chinese government limits Uyghurs from acquiring information about how to be a pious Muslim. These policies not only inhibit practices of Uyghur culture, but also negatively impact local commerce and development, which appears to be yet another reason for Uyghurs to be unsatisfied with the Chinese government (Marguleas).
Marguleas explains another reason for the Uyghurs to be unhappy with the Chinese government. He is explaining how suppressing of digital services impact the learning of their religion. Although repercussions are not defined in the Anti-Terrorism Bill nor the National Security law, the punitive actions taken by the state often result in detention. Due to the lack of freedom of speech for journalists and Uyghur citizens, combined with the Chinese government’s limits on foreign journalists, precise reports of detention do not exist. Jacobs reports, “Discovering the truth about the growing unrest in Xinjiang is challenging. Government restrictions make independent reporting difficult, and Uyghurs who provide foreign journalists with information about such politically charged matters can face severe punishment.” The systematic suppression of the Muslim culture drives many Uyghurs to risk their lives to flee to places like Turkey where they can practice their religion freely and compose first-hand accounts of the religious persecution taking place in Xinjiang (Ertekin). However, that journey also carries risks. At the behest of China, Thai officials have detained refugees found in its country (Fay). In May 2016, those detainees sent a letter to the World Uyghur Conference, detailing their plans for a hunger strike to draw attention to the violation of their human rights (UNPO). The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) says that the detainees are subjected to inhumane treatment and are denied food, healthcare and legal recourse.
Although repercussions of internet violation are not defined in the Anti-Terrorism Bill nor the National Security law, the punitive actions taken by the state often result in detention. Due to the lack of freedom of speech for journalists and Uyghur citizens, combined with the Chinese government’s limits on foreign journalists, precise reports of detention do not exist. Jacobs reports, “Discovering the truth about the growing unrest in Xinjiang is challenging. Government restrictions make independent reporting difficult, and Uyghurs who provide foreign journalists with information about such politically charged matters can face severe punishment.” The systematic suppression of the Muslim culture drives many Uyghurs to risk their lives to flee to places like Turkey where they can practice their religion freely and compose first-hand accounts of the religious persecution taking place in Xinjiang (Ertekin). However, that journey also carries risks. At the behest of China, Thai officials have detained refugees found in its country (Fay). In May 2016, those detainees sent a letter to the World Uyghur Conference, detailing their plans for a hunger strike to draw attention to the violation of their human rights (UNPO). The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) says that the detainees are subjected to inhumane treatment and are denied food, healthcare and legal recourse.
The People’s Republic of China is already well known for its extreme forms of censorship, even outside of the Xinjiang Province. Great measures are taken to prevent people from accessing internet sources that may supply information about controversial yet important events. In order to prevent the populous from reaching outside sources, the government has gone to greater extents than simply relying on the “Great Firewall.” As Mazur points out, “The Chinese Government is shutting down the mobile services of residents in Xinjiang who use software that lets them circumvent internet filters, escalating an already aggressive electronic surveillance strategy in the country’s fractious western territory” (Mozur). This not only illustrates the lengths to which the government is willing to go to in order to prevent unwanted information from reaching its citizens but the addition resources that it is willing to put into censoring all forms of media. These additional efforts to censor the public are extreme due to the large lump sum of resources already put into creating one of the most elaborate firewalls in the world. To further censor the public and instill a sense of fear in the population the Chinese authorities have been known to detain those who “extol religious militancy and ethnic separatism” (Huffington). Although China is free to do as they please as a country censorship of this nature seems all too extreme to ignore.
China’s censorship practices have caught the attention of international journalists. These reporters’ abilities to obtain information on censored topics are limited, as the Chinese government is not very accepting of foreign reporters. International reporters often suffered the same fate as the Uyghur population and were detained in their attempts to cover the extreme censorship occurring in the Xinjiang Province (Smith). In the case of the Uyghur detainees, it was difficult for journalists to obtain information about the events that occurred.A great visual of the extreme censoring of foreign news coverage is portrayed in a short video created by Sky News Reporter Mark Stone. The film illustrates how difficult it is to even stay in the Xinjiang Province as a “tourist” and to be a reporter comes with extra government interaction. In fact, the locals fear for their own safety when speaking to foreigners as they are concerned about governmental repercussions (Stone). With information so difficult to gather, journalists must rely on the few willing Chinese citizens willing to describe the censorship they endure. Although unwanted information of this nature is scarce in a highly censored setting, information occasionally gets leaked to the international reporters allowing for the outside world to get an inside look at the censorship occurring in different parts of China.
On the other hand, Jeffrey Luo discusses the effect of this media censorship. He notes, “In China, since the media rarely reports negative events, people are rarely aware of the danger around them.” Luo then goes on to say that “A better way to put it would be that the censorship has been effective in making the Chinese people feel safer.” Instead of allowing the public to be more informed, the government limits the information available to its citizens in order to keep control. Yigun Jiang also argues that Chinese censorship, broadly conceived, may have its, “pros and cons;” for “strict censorship on media terrorists” may result in them having fewer outlets through which “to reach the Chinese people” (Jiang ). Jiang argues further, “Because the government controls what people should and should not know, it creates a desirable social environment for its people; For example, in the rural areas where access to media is very limited people seem happier.” Jiang comments on the “Ignorance is bliss” mentality, contending that it can indeed be effective. While many Westerners would argue that an uninformed population is at a greater risk of danger, but to some keeping the peace is prioritized.
Control is something that is pivotal in running a successful state, but countries implement it in different ways. In the United states, freedom of expression gives citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions of pressing political and global issues. The way control us kept in the United States and many other democratic countries is by giving the populous real power to make change. Every local voting cycle, citizens are given the opportunity to vote on laws along with electing officials to office. Empowering the populace and encouraging them to make change is how control is kept in the United states. Though in China this is not the case. In China, the government keeps control by creating an illusion that everything is under control, even though that might not be the case. The Chinese Uyghurs face a daily battle in expressing their frustrations with the government. They lack the right to make change in their society, and face severe punishment if they try to do so. The recent unveiling of this censorship has let to an uproar of nations and organizations across the globe, pressure the country for real change.
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