This is my second post to Socionocular on the topic of Xinjiang, a far-western region of China where I lived for 18 months. For a very basic overview on Xinjiang and China’s internet and social media landscape, please see here.
What follows are several anecdotes from my year and a half in China regarding the topic of internet (and other) censorship and the atmosphere of distrust and paranoia it fosters.
In my first year in Ürümqi I regularly attended a weekly English club with a close network of Chinese professionals. We ate in a private dining room at a small mom-and-pop restaurant, and it was an intimate-enough group that sometimes conversations turned political. There were a small few who spoke without hesitation, but without fail somebody would get up to close the door before having their say.
I remember it was during one of these conversations that a relative newcomer to the group asked me out of the blue if I ever called home to Canada.
“No,” I told him, “I just use the internet.”
“Good,” he replied, “Someone might listen, if you called.”
This sort of caught me by surprise, so I probed him: “What, like American spies?”
He shook his head no, but then thought about it. “Maybe them too. But I mean the Chinese police.”
There was also a (in my opinion) completely reasonable belief among many of the foreigners that many of our apartments might be bugged as well. A friend who attended college in China over a decade ago says he was told flat-out that the foreign student dormitory was being recorded, but not monitored. “If something happens,” he was told, “They can go back and review the recordings.”
I visited another friend’s apartment once, and it came up in conversation that he believed his place was definitely bugged. When I asked him how he knew, he said that another foreigner had lived in it before; he had been friends with him and spent a lot of time visiting. One day a young policeman in the neighborhood warned him to be careful what he said when he visited. Despite the ominous warning, he liked the neighborhood and tried to rent an apartment nearby, but was blocked by the police. I know others who were barred from this neighborhood as well. Finally, though, after his friends moved to a new home he contacted their landlord and inquired about their old apartment. He was given permission to move in by the same police who had told him it was impossible before. The popular opinion was that they probably approved it because they wouldn’t need to go through the trouble of re-bugging the place.
Again, it isn’t to say that everyone’s apartment is bugged. But it’s very telling to me that whenever the topic came up, the usual verdict was usually ‘Yeah, could be,’ and never ‘No, stop being paranoid.’
It isn’t just the foreigners who are so concerned, either. In fact, many locals are subject to more immediate, more real, and more invasive surveillance. Early in my stay in Xinjiang I made friends with a university student who offered to show me around the city. We kept in contact and enjoyed chatting from time to time. On our third or fourth meeting he confessed to me that he was a practitioner of an illegal religion. He said he was never worried about telling foreigners this, because foreigners never seemed to care. “But,” he gestured to the students sitting at the table next to ours “If I told you this in Chinese I might get in trouble.” He recommended some reading materials I should look up, and then spent some time laying out his burdens: at college many of his classmates regularly had their phones confiscated and searched. He showed me both of his phones: one for storing his religious materials, and the other one ‘clean’ so he could hand it over to be searched without worry.
For all the presumed monitoring and censorship, the most people I associated with largely got on with their lives without worrying about it too much. It was occasionally a topic of conversation, or a bit of a game (such as conspicuously whispering pro-China slogans into lamps), but it became a more immediate personal concern in the summer of 2015.
I only briefly mentioned the “Great Firewall” before this, partly because its reputation precedes itself. What some people don’t realize, though, is that most of the time it isn’t terribly difficult to circumvent. There are multiple free Virtual Private Network (VPN) options that will allow one to access Facebook and Youtube, and most foreigners I know made use of one or two VPNs regularly. Some Chinese people I knew also made use of VPNs, but others considered them too much of a hassle for too little benefit (I was once told “Why pay go through so much trouble to use the foreign internet? The Chinese internet has everything I want.”). Word started to circulate that China Mobile, one of the larger cellular carriers, was shutting down service to those running VPNs on their phones. One night at a regular foreigner hang-out, a friend told me about his experience. He had his phone service cut, went to China Mobile to have it reconnected, but was referred to the Public Security bureau. The PSB instructed them to delete all “foreign communication apps” including Facebook and Skype, and submit their phones for inspection before they could be re-activated.
It was clear that the network could tell if a phone was making use of a VPN, but the shut-downs seemed random. A little less than half of my friends got shut down, and I myself continued to use my phone without issue for another six or seven months after that. At the end of January 2016, though, my phone service finally stopped without warning or explanation. At first I thought I had just run out of credit, so I sank some money into my account to put myself back in the black. This didn’t work, so I told my company’s foreigner-handler that I had been shut down. She took me to the Public Security Bureau where they asked me to hand over my phone so they could have a look. I had changed my SIM over from my iPhone to the cheap Nokia phone I had bought in my first week in China. They observed that there were no foreign apps and told me my phone would be re-activated in two weeks. The whole visit took less than fifteen minutes.
They must have figured out I was being less than honest, though, because two months later my phone still hadn’t been reactivated. Otherwise they lost the paperwork or some other institutional failure caused a problem. In any case, I gave up on getting my phone service for a time, and satisfied myself with hopping from wifi hotspot to wifi hotspot around the city for a few months.
Though there are others, these anectdotes are roughly representative of my experience in China. I’ve avoided providing too much biographical info, and/or changed a few details where they are inconsequential, to guard against an unlikely situation where post blips on the Chinese radar.
I will conclude in a third and final post to discuss one last anecdote concerning a personal vice of mine, and the lasting echo of censorship that rings even after leaving China.