Internet Available in Xinjiang, But Controls Over Information Remain

August 7, 2010

Authorities in the far western region of Xinjiang continue to exert tight control over freedom of expression, imposing limits on expression in a number of cases that are harsher than restrictions imposed elsewhere in China. Following demonstrations and rioting in Xinjiang in July 2009, authorities restricted access to the Internet, text messaging, and international telephone calls, claiming that they played a key role in inciting unrest. While authorities largely restored access to the technologies by May 2010, harsh restrictions on expression remain in place: popular Uyghur Web sites remain inaccessible and staff of some Uyghur Web sites remain in detention or in prison, Xinjiang residents report prohibitions against discussing the July 2009 events online, legal regulations imposing tight controls over free expression remain in force, and the Xinjiang government continues to carry out wide-scale censorship campaigns.

Following 10 months of restricted Internet access in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) after demonstrations and rioting in the region in July 2009, authorities announced in May that they had fully restored Internet access in the region. (See a May 14 announcement on the restoration of Internet service via Tianshan Net.) As reported in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2009 Annual Report, the Communist Party Secretary of Urumqi, where the demonstrations and rioting occurred, had announced on July 7, 2009, that authorities cut Internet access in the city to "quench the riot quickly and prevent violence from spreading to other places." Authorities also instituted Internet restrictions across the region and imposed curbs on text messaging and international phone calls. The actual role the communication devices played in violent rioting (as opposed to demonstrations) was unclear, however, and the wide-reaching restrictions―affecting all Internet, SMS, and international phone content and lasting for months after the July 2009 events―exceeded permissible boundaries for limiting the right to free expression as defined in international human rights standards.

Authorities announced the incremental reopening of communications services starting in December and provided more access to text messaging and international phone calls starting in January. (See, e.g., a December 29 Xinhua article, January 18, 2010, China Daily article, and January 20 Agence France-Presse article via Channel News Asia.) Despite what authorities termed the "full restoration" of Internet access in May, a year after the July 2009 events authorities continue to impose curbs over Internet access along with broader controls over the free flow of information.

Uyghur Websites Still Closed Down, Uyghur Webmasters Detained

After initial reports that the Internet had been fully restored in the XUAR, Urumqi residents reported in a May 19 Radio Free Asia (RFA) article that Uyghur Web sites such as Diyarim, Shabnam, Salkin, and Orkhun were still shut down. CECC monitoring of the Web sites in July from Washington, DC, found the Web sites inaccessible. (Orkhun's home page is available, but the site's content is restricted.) In addition to the curbs over Uyghur Web sites, China's broader system of blocking online content deemed to be sensitive ("China's Great Firewall" or the "Great Electronic Wall of China") remains in place, as noted in a May 19, 2010, open letter to XUAR Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian from Reporters without Borders.

Authorities have detained Webmasters and staff involved in some of the shuttered Uyghur Web sites and have since sentenced some to prison terms. Authorities detained Diyarim editor Dilshat Perhat from July 24 to August 2, 2009, and unidentified men took him from his home on August 7. Other people involved with Uyghur Web sites―Selkin Web site administrator Nureli, Selkin administrator Muhemmet, Diyarim worker Obulqasim, and Diyarim contributors Xeyrinisa, Xalnur, and Erkin―also were reportedly detained during the same periods. (Three Diyarim administrators known only by the pen names "Muztagh," "Lükchek," and "Yanchuqchi" also were taken into detention, according to a December 11, 2009, article from RFA's Uyghur service.)

In July 2010, a court in the XUAR sentenced Dilshat Perhat, Nureli, and Shabnam administrator Nijat Azat to prison terms of 5, 3, and 10 years, respectively. Some Uyghur Web sites contained postings calling people to demonstrate in Urumqi on July 5, and authorities had blamed the Web sites for contributing to unrest. The cases of the three Web administrators also are reportedly connected to other content posted on their Web sites that described hardships in the XUAR. See a related CECC analysis for more information on these cases, as well as the case of Uyghur journalist and Web editor Gheyret Niyaz, sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment on July 23, 2010, in connection to essays and interviews he gave to foreign media.

Online Discussion of July 2009 Events Reportedly Prohibited, Media Reporting Curbed

Authorities have blocked online discussion of events in July 2009, according to a June 22 RFA report. An employee from the public information and Internet supervision office of the Urumqi Public Security Bureau told RFA in an interview that online discussions of the "July 5 incident," including discussion of articles about the event published in the news, are not allowed. Another government employee cited in the article also described keyword filtering of content related to events in July 2009. In addition, the Hong Kong-based Mingpao newspaper reported on June 19 (via Yahoo) that XUAR media received a directive that month prohibiting reports connected to the July 2009 anniversary or other sensitive events such as protests in Kyrgyzstan, other than those prepared by the central government's news agency Xinhua. During the one-year anniversary, national media with government or Party affiliation, particularly those directed toward international audiences, issued reports on events in July 2009. (See, e.g., a July 4 Xinhua article in Chinese and July 5 articles from China News Service (in Chinese), Global Times, and China Daily.)

Restrictions on local media have been accompanied by reported curbs on XUAR residents' freedom to interact with foreign journalists. Authorities issued an internal circular prohibiting unauthorized interviews with foreign media during "sensitive days," according to a World Uyghur Congress spokesperson cited in a June 15 RFA article. In her written testimony for the July 19, 2010, CECC roundtable "China's Far West: Conditions in Xinjiang One Year After Demonstrations and Riots," journalist Kathleen E. McLaughlin reported being told of similar restrictions in Kashgar during the past year, where

reporting was extremely difficult because locals did not want to be interviewed. I was told there were clear directives that residents should not be speaking with foreign journalists and that all local tour guides had been issued guidelines to report journalists to the local police. This has been borne out by the experience of other journalists who have tried to work in Kashgar over the past year. It's a marked turnabout from conditions before the riots, when Kashgar was relatively open to reporters and locals [talked] with journalists without extreme fear of reprisals. That's no longer the case.

Regulations, Directive Penalize Free Speech

Regulations issued in the past year and currently in force maintain tight curbs over freedom of expression. Legislation in force throughout the XUAR and examined by the CECC in past analyses include regulations on informatization promotion, social order, and ethnic unity. In addition, the Kashgar District Public Security Bureau, Kashgar District Procuratorate, and Kashgar District Intermediate Court issued an announcement (via Kashgar district government Web site) in March for that locality that specifies penalties under China's Criminal Law for using technology such as Internet and cell phones to "incite splittism" (separatism), a crime under Article 103 of the Criminal Law. The directive defines the crime to include using technology to carry out, with the aim of splitting the country, acts including: spreading "materials, open discussion, content, and advocacy on separatism"; "inciting participation in rallies, marches, demonstrations, or the criminal activity of beating, smashing, looting, and burning'; disseminating literary works with separatist content; and "slandering and assaulting the Party and government." The announcement also describes penalties under the Criminal Law for "illegal sermonizing" and "tabligh activities" deemed to incite "ethnic hatred and bias" and for "cult"-related activities, along with using information technology to propagate terrorism.

Censorship Campaigns Continue

The XUAR government and Party also continue to enforce wide-scale censorship campaigns. Zhou Huilin, an official involved with the nationwide campaign to "sweep away pornography and strike down illegal publications" explained in December 2009 that within the XUAR, the censorship campaign's focus on "illegal publications" includes an additional component targeting materials from the "three forces" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism, according to a December 16 Tianshan Net report. The XUAR government and Party have made "striking hard" against "reactionary" materials and other "illegal" political and religious publications from the "three forces" as the focus of the region's censorship campaign since 2009, according to a January 19, 2010, Tianshan Net report. The article also described strengthening controls over "illegal" materials especially after events in July 2009. A work summary published on July 5, 2010, on the Web site of the XUAR Press and Publications Bureau said that the bureau would deepen its implementation of the censorship work during the last half of the year and would focus on "striking hard" against "reactionary propaganda materials" and "illegal" political and religious publications publicized and disseminated by the "three forces."

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV―Xinjiang in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.