I recently completed eighteen months of living in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang. As part of the coming-home process I contacted Kyle and offered to write a brief account of my experience in the ‘internet censorship laboratory of the world.’ What follows is a whirlwind of thoughts, opinions, and personal anecdotes that I will be the first to admit require much fact-checking and cross-referencing. Please consider them pages torn from my personal journal and shared with readers of Socionocular for their curiosity value.
One random day in mid-2014 three of my soon-to-be coworkers received text messages from the propaganda bureau of Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in far western China. The messages reminded them that foreigners weren’t to be trusted, and that they must not share secrets with outsiders.
Which foreigners were these good Chinese citizens supposed to be wary of? And what secrets did three English teachers possess that could possibly compromise the safety of the nation? When later I asked these questions I betrayed my newcomer status. I would eventually conclude that all foreigners are suspect, especially in Xinjiang, and that the point is not so much to safeguard secrets as much as it’s to maintain the atmosphere of low-grade xenophobia.
The question that possessed my local friends was more pointed: why them? Broadcast text messages signed by the propaganda bureau weren’t uncommon, but this message was specific in its content and its recipients. For one, even though there were numerous foreigners working out of that office, only three of the more than two dozen Chinese staff got this particular message. As they chatted about it over lunch, they tried to work it out. One girl was dating a foreigner; the other was sleeping with one; the third was very close to a foreigner in a chaste, conservative Christian un-relationship that everyone could see through. But other staff had been so close with foreigners before. Besides, who would have been interested but inconspicuous enough to report these various liaisons to the propaganda bureau? And why would they bother?
The conclusion they eventually arrived at was that all three had used their ID cards to buy a SIM card for ‘their’ foreigner. That was the link.
And the phone company and Propaganda Bureau were evidently watching closely enough to notice.
To sign up for social media in China, most popular services require authentication using a mobile phone. In order to get a mobile number, one must register their government ID with the phone company before being given an activated SIM card. If the pieces fit together correctly anonymity is impossible on the Chinese internet. While I have friends who assure me that one can sever a link in this chain elsewhere in China, it’s much more difficult in Xinjiang.
The reason is, I suspect, that the stakes are higher in Xinjiang for the government, and so the fist is a little tighter. Like Tibet, Xinjiang is an autonomous region principally populated by China’s minorities, not the majority-everywhere-else Han. The Uyghurs who lend their name to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are a majority-muslim turkic ethnic group who share neither language nor culture with Beijing. The history of the region is complex, and contested, and supporting the wrong narrative or questioning the ‘right’ one is considered subversion.
20th century Xinjiang has been marked by episodes of pan-turkic, and separatist thought. There were two abortive independent states declared in the past century, both called East Turkestan. Both collapsed quickly. In the 21st century Beijing has bundled separatism with extremism and terrorism, labeling them ‘The Three Evils‘ which must be opposed at every level of society. The official line, packaged with China’s notorious control over the mainstream media has had the result of conflating each of the three evils with each-other.
The result of the party’s stranglehold on most of the news-media in China (if you’re curious, read The Party Line by Doug Young) is that the really interesting stuff is happening online. In China, the internet and social media have become somewhat of a haven for off-message thinking, mostly in the form of jokes. As mentioned, true anonymity is difficult on Chinese social media, but the Chinese language’s rich ability to cast puns has been used as a tool to avoid automated censorship, and make subtle jabs at those in power.
But the government has some surprisingly grassroots-seeming tactics of it’s own, such as its ability to rouse patriots to comment on the internet to support the party (mostly in Chinese, but also in other language). The use of paid government commenters is also an open secret. These paid internet posters are derogatorily called 五毛 (‘wǔmáo’), meaning ‘five mao’ (a unit of currency) because that is supposedly the going rate for one internet post (.5元is about $.07 USD).
Ultimately, though, China is also willing to throw the switch completely. Similar to how Egypt did in the wake of protests in early 2011, China took all of Xinjiang offline in 2009 for 10 months in the wake of the Urumqi riots.
I’m sure you can imagine that in this atmosphere it’s impossible to take others at face-value unless you are very close with them. Very often people will claim apathy or ignorance when asked uncomfortable questions, or echo the official line even if they roll their eyes while doing so. Contrary opinions are not shared easily, and paranoia is pervasive.
There is much I haven’t even touched on, some of which has been discussed at length by others (such as the Great Firewall blocking Chinese citizens’ access to many foreign websites). Instead of repeating myself (or others), I’ll conclude this introduction to the situation here. Shortly I will follow up with another post containing a series of anecdotes which touch on this self-censorship and paranoia.