New Internet measures indicate increased curbs on Uyghur freedom of speech

A child at an Internet cafe in Urumqi

For Immediate Release
October 8, 2013, 5:30 pm EST
Contact: Uyghur American Association +1 (202) 478 1920

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) is concerned about the targeting of Uyghurs in East Turkestan over their online activity. UAA believes the Chinese authorities, through a national campaign targeting free speech backed up by harsh criminal procedures against Internet users, are attempting to stifle the Uyghur right to freedom to speech—a right guaranteed in international law, as well as in Chinese domestic law.

The national campaign against online activities, dubbed by intellectuals, bloggers and activists as an “online Cultural Revolution,” has resulted in the detention of a number of high profile online figures, such as Chinese-American businessman, Charles Xue. Nevertheless, in line with other forms of dissent, freedom of speech and opposition to the state as expressed online by Uyghurs is liable to be conflated by Chinese officials with extremism.

“Since China launched a crackdown on social media across China, we have seen an increasing number of Uyghurs detained, charged and convicted for their online activity,” said UAA president, Alim Seytoff. “While in eastern China, authorities have restricted online criticism of the party, in East Turkestan authorities have targeted Uyghurs who tried to expose recent extrajudicial killings of Uyghurs or expressed criticism of China’s religious crackdowns, bilingual language implementation and Han immigration policies."

"Without offering any details, the Chinese authorities label the targeted Uyghurs as ‘extremists’ hoping to elude any debate regarding the truth of their claims. As a result, the universal right to freedom of speech is repeatedly violated in East Turkestan under a smear conducted in the name of security."

On October 8, 2013, overseas and Chinese media reported that police in East Turkestan had investigated 256 people for “spreading destabilizing rumors” online and a further 139 individuals for spreading rumors about “jihad, or Muslim holy war, or other religious ideas.” Tianshan Net noted that 110 people had been detained, of which 94 were administrative and 16 criminal. In addition, 164 individuals were handed warnings.

An internal May 2013 document issued by the Central Committee General Office of the Chinese Communist Party entitled “Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere” detailed Chinese officials’ anxieties over the party’s capacity to control public debate in China. In an article dated May 16, 2013, Global Voices described how an existing policy of “Seven-Speak-Nots” had been incorporated into the May document to censor online expression.

Citing a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law, the Global Voices report states the “Seven-Speak-Nots” include “universal values, civil society, citizen rights, judicial independence, freedom of the press, past mistakes of the communist party, and the privileged capitalist class.” On May 14, 2013, Associated Press reported on the closing of microblog accounts owned by Chinese human rights lawyers and intellectuals stemming from the new directives.

In East Turkestan, the Chinese government has a long record of conflating Uyghur dissent with terrorism or extremism as a justification for harsh crackdowns on public discourse. Chinese authorities in East Turkestan have continued this approach while implementing the “Seven-Speak-Nots” in the region. An indication of this approach is evidenced in a July 31, 2013 statement emerging from the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region People’s Congress. The statement details a “crackdown on violent terrorist crimes,” which includes “use of the Internet.”

The central directives have been strictly implemented in East Turkestan leading to a noticeable increase in criminal procedures targeting Uyghur Internet users. A Global Times report dated July 23, 2013 claimed 72 people had been handed administrative detentions for spreading rumors online following a June 2013 incident in Lukchun, near Turpan. A further 127 individuals were punished on the same charge; however, the penalties handed down were not made clear in the report.

Prior to the July report, a June 30 Xinjiang Daily article described 19 cases involving rumors spread on QQ, Weibo and SMS handled on June 26, 27, and 28 by public security organs in Urumchi and Aksu, including an anonymous “Su Doe” and “Chen Doe.”

On June 3, 2012 Tianshan Net reported that “Pamir Yasen” received 15 days of administrative detention on May 28, 2012 for spreading rumors on the Sina microblog. 

On May 21, 2013 an anonymous “Gu Doe,” was sentenced to 5 days of administrative detention by the Urumchi Municipal Public Security bureau for fabricating rumors on QQ about a suicide bombing.

Like the cases reported on October 8, 2013, the ethnicity of Internet users cannot be determined from the information released by Chinese state media. Only Pamir Yasen’s case involves a name that can be identified as Uyghur; however, the nature of the charges indicate individuals of Uyghur ethnicity.

Chinese authorities have also harassed staff of a Uyghur-run website which discusses economic, social and cultural issues. An editor of the Uyghur Online website, Perhat Halmurat was detained on September 28, 2013 at Beijing International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Turkey to begin studies at Istanbul University. On July 15, 2013, a volunteer for the Uyghur online website, Mutellip Imin, was also detained at Beijing International Airport. His current whereabouts is unknown. Furthermore, Shohret, a webmaster for Uyghur Online, was questioned by police and forced to reveal webmaster passwords for the website.

Freedom of speech is protected in Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, as well as in the normative human rights standards outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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