Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people based in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Province, suffer internet restrictions imposed by the Chinese Communist regime (CCP) that amount to a virtual cage, says a new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP).
While citizens in democracies around the world enjoy the freedoms of the internet, Uyghurs experience censorship, restricted access, intimidation in a dangerous environment flush with anti-Uyghur propaganda and lies, says UHRP’s report, “Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online.”
“The Internet in East Turkestan is not the vehicle for empowerment, accountability and freedom that it is in the democracies of the world,” said UHRP director, Alim Seytoff in a statement for the press. The group refers to the region in China currently known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as East Turkestan, which they advocate as an independent state. “What it represents, however, is another means for the Chinese state to disseminate propaganda and falsehoods about the Uyghur condition, as well as to flush out its perceived enemies.”
Seytoff continued, “It is no surprise Chinese officials have placed unprecedented controls over the Uyghur internet. They fear that an open online environment in East Turkestan will expose egregious human rights abuses committed against the Uyghur people under their administration.”
“The Chinese authorities can, at will, imprison Uyghurs who peacefully express dissent online and deny Uyghurs access to the Internet at the flick of a switch,” he added.
The internet acts as a surveillance instrument, a regulatory weapon, and a collector of evidence, for the Chinese regime. Regulation of the internet has brought arrests, convictions and harsh sentencing of Uyghur internet users, webmasters and bloggers, charges the report. The life imprisonment of Uyghur internet contributor Gulmire Imin for posts encouraging alleged “splittism, leaking state secrets and organizing an illegal demonstration” is an example of the treacherous ground Uyghurs tread upon when posting on the internet. Professor Ilham Tohti, founder of website Uighurbiz, who was arrested last year, is currently facing the grave charge of “splittism.”
For the most innocent and politics-free Uyghur internet users, the CCP-controlled internet environment offers fewer attractions than urban Chinese users enjoy. UHRP’s report reveals levels of censorship and blocking of content that far exceed those in typical urban areas. Sina Weibo moderators deleted 50 percent of social media posts in Xinjiang Province compared to 10 percent of posts in Beijing, for example.
Regular internet shutdowns interrupt service in Xinjiang, while days or even months-long internet blackouts have occurred. After the 10 month long outage following Xinjiang violence in 2009, UHRP estimates that over 80 percent of Uyghur websites did not return. This resulted in the loss of vast amounts of data and records of Uyghur websites, in addition to the loss of communication between Uyghur citizens.
The repression and regulation of the internet in Xinjiang results in severe violations of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and association, charges UHRP, pointing out the regime’s international obligations and requesting that it observe its own laws regarding freedom of speech and association.