Welcome to Uighur Web—Now Watch What You Say

China’s Internet is vast, with millions of sites and more than 618 million users. But nested within that universe is a tiny virtual community comprising just a few thousand websites where China’s Uighur, the country’s fifth-largest ethnic minority with a population of approximately 11 million, gather online to communicate in their own language and script.

This is the Uighur web. The space can be defined as the Internet as it exists within the borders of China’s far western autonomous region of Xinjiang, the homeland of the Turkic-language-speaking, mostly Muslim Uighur minority. It can also be seen as the Uighur-focused Internet perused by Uighurs across China. In both cases, content and access are tightly controlled.

Because of sporadic violence that the Chinese government blames on a simmering separatist movement, authorities are vigilant about scouring the Uighur web for material that they think could incite unrest. After ethnic riots in the regional capital of Urumqi left at least 197 people dead in July 2009, Xinjiang’s web was unplugged for ten months, stranding 22 million people of all ethnicities offline.

Xinjiang has “gained independence on the Internet, separated from the Internet world,” blogged journalist and blogger Wang Dahao wryly a few months into the shutdown. “It was absolutely unbearable,” Zheng Liang, a lecturer at Xinjiang University in Urumqi, who researches media and ethnic minorities, told Foreign Policy. “I had to fly to another province to get to my emails.”

Authorities in Xinjiang continue to reach for the Internet kill switch when violence flares, though the shutdowns now are more targeted. When a reporter for The New York Times visited the remote oasis town of Hotan in southern Xinjiang in August 2013 to report on a violent clash between Uighur and police on June 28, 2013, he found that cell-phone service in the area had been cut for weeks following the incident and that residents still had no Internet access.

Given all that, the Internet penetration rate in Xinjiang appears surprisingly high. According to statistics from the government-run China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), Xinjiang is the eleventh-most connected region in China out of thirty-one ranked, with forty-three percent of its population online, and an annual penetration growth rate of 9.1 percent. Zheng says smartphone use is the dominant form of access and that his Uighur students and friends are “addicted” to the Internet. Especially popular is WeChat, a Chinese homegrown messaging app that has become a common way to stay in touch and share news.

In February 2014, Zheng was at a Uighur song-and-dance performance in Yopurga county near the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar. He saw Uighur farmers lifting their phones to take photos of the show. Zheng says he “didn’t notice such popularity of smartphones two years ago.”

On the other hand, CNNIC’s numbers also show that there are relatively few registered websites and IP addresses in Xinjiang. Xinjiang had only about 6,000 websites in 2012, compared with almost 400,000 in the capital, Beijing, in the same year. The disparity likely means that people in Xinjiang want to be connected but are loath to set up their own sites.

Enver Uyghur, the web editor for Radio Free Asia online, a nonprofit U.S.-based media outlet, estimates that there are just under 2,000 Uighur-language sites in China, many of them listed on the Ulinix.com web portal, which catalogs useful and popular sites. Most of the sites are written in the Arabic script that became standard in the 1980s, not the Latin script that once dominated and is still generally preferred by Uighurs outside China. (Many Uighurs can switch easily between the different scripts, and some also know the alternative Cyrillic script, a relic of Soviet influence in the region.)

The small number of Xinjiang-based sites shouldn’t be surprising given the government crackdown on webmasters and online journalists following the violence of July 2009. In the immediate aftermath, authorities blamed exiled Uighur for using the Internet to organize the July 5, 2009, protest in Urumqi that turned violent, with Uighur mobs attacking and killing majority Han Chinese in the streets. Han Chinese then retaliated, leading to more deaths. Dozens of Uighur website founders, editors, and writers received lengthy prison terms, including Gulmira Imin, a moderator and contributor to the now-defunct Uighur-language Salkin website, which featured news and cultural discussion as well as a discussion forum. Imin was sentenced to life in prison for “splittism, leaking state secrets, and organizing an illegal demonstration.” Dilshat Perhat, webmaster and owner of Diyarim, which was similar in content to Salkin and also had a lively forum, was sentenced to five years in prison for “endangering state security.” The Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association says hundreds of other sites were also shut down.

A few months after the Urumqi violence, Xinjiang approved a law that made it a crime to post comments about independence or separatism online (the regional law reinforced already existing national legislation that bars seditious talk in cyberspace). The law also required Internet service providers and network operators to monitor and report any lawbreakers. This has put “intense political pressure” on webmasters and dissuaded people from opening new sites, said Alim Seytoff, President of the Uyghur American Association, in an interview with FP. “It can be very risky to open a website,” Seytoff said. “If you have a chat room and in the middle of the night somebody posts something seditious, the next day the webmaster will have a big problem.”

On Chinese social media sites, content is mainly scrubbed by in-house net nannies. The responsibility lies with the service provider to make sure that illegal content doesn’t show up on the provider’s sites.

Researchers have found that China’s “restive” regions—areas bubbling with ethnic hostilities and plagued by poverty—have the most stringently censored social media environments. A Carnegie Mellon University study published in 2012 found that more than half of social media posts surveyed from Tibet, Qinghai, and Xinjiang were deleted, while only about ten percent of those in Beijing and Shanghai were erased.

The consequences for posting anything vaguely political can be chilling. In December 2011, when Uighur undergraduate Atikem Rozi complained on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, about not being able to get a passport, police brought her in for questioning. Even Chinese state media appeared aghast at Rozi’s treatment and said the case smacked of ethnic discrimination.

More troubling is the case of Rozi’s boyfriend, Mutellip Imin, a Uighur from Xinjiang who has been studying in Turkey. He also worked as a moderator for Uighur Online, a bilingual website founded by detained Uighur economist Ilham Tohti. The site has been blocked in China since 2008 and is hosted in the United States. Tohti was detained in January and has been charged with inciting separatism, a charge that could carry a life sentence.

Several weeks before Tohti was detained, twenty-six-year-old Imin posted a disturbing account of his detention and harassment by Chinese government authorities. Imin said he was detained at the Beijing airport in July 2013 while trying to fly back to Istanbul after a summer holiday. He was held for seventy-nine days in three different Xinjiang hotels. He said he was never arrested or charged.

Imin wrote on his personal blog that authorities forced him to give over the passwords to his mobile phone, computer, and email, chat, and social media accounts. He wrote that he was also forced to read a statement in Uighur and Mandarin Chinese—one penned by authorities—while police videotaped him. It included statements that Imin’s “eyes were blinded by Ilham Tohti” and that Imin had “played a very bad role on the Internet.” Imin wrote that police were concerned that he was linked to Uighur independence groups overseas, something he denied. Imin was detained again in January 2014, according to Radio Free Asia, and has not been heard from since. Henryk Szadziewski, a senior researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, says Imin’s case is “quite emblematic of the restrictions facing Uighurs” and “the dire consequences for freely expressing your opinions online.”

While it’s possible for Uighurs or others in Xinjiang to access forbidden content through proxy servers, which provide online anonymity, most shy away from this option because the government clearly associates such use with terrorism and crime. In March, Xinjiang’s top Communist Party official, Zhang Chunxian, told reporters at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, that ninety percent of “violent terrorists” use virtual private networks, which obscure a computer’s location, to circumvent China’s web controls and watch extremist videos. He didn’t elaborate and offered no proof to back up the assertion.

The cumulative effect of the tight controls has been the evolution of a highly filtered and homogenized Uighur web. Issues like discrimination, bilingual education for children, religion, and unemployment are among the many dangerous or off-limits topics. Instead, users tend to stick to music videos, shopping, parenting advice, fashion, and dating, says Seytoff.

Zheng, the Xinjiang University lecturer, agrees. Zheng speaks and reads Uighur and regularly looks at Uighur-language sites. He says the space is “less dynamic” than what’s on the rest of the Chinese web. “Owners are too afraid to get in trouble, so they self-censor,” he says, adding that he has observed an increasing number of Uighurs moving to Chinese platforms where discussions are “more dynamic, interesting, and influential.”

That’s a big contrast to the Uighur diaspora web, according to Paris-based scholar Dilnur Reyhan in a 2012 survey of Internet use by Uighurs. Whereas websites “in the diaspora are highly political,” she wrote, websites in Xinjiang “are more self-[censoring] than ever before.” Such is life on the true Uighur web.