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Censoring Collective Identity: Chinese Cybersecurity Policy and the Uyghurs

September 7, 2016


Oliver Marguleas

The following article is the second in a series focusing on countries that restrict speech online in order to prevent “social panic” or “anxiety amongst citizenry.” The series will examine Venezuela, China, and Saudi Arabia.

It is widely known China suppresses digital activity on a grand scale. China, which ranked last in Internet Freedom in 2015, commonly practices mass censorship and uses extensive surveillance to implement its policy goals and national security objectives.[1] The government’s monitoring of private communications within the country is not only common, but popular amongst Chinese citizens.[2] This may be due to the fact in terms of speech, the Chinese people have been described as “individually free, but collectively in chains.”[3]

However, speech is not equal for all in China and the limits on speech have serious implications for groups such as the Chinese Uyghurs, especially given that some Uyghurs desire independence from China. The Chinese Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group who largely reside in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. have a long history of opposition and violence with the Chinese government. It is no surprise this relationship exists in cyberspace as well. Chinese Uyghurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, face significant restrictions on digital activity. The Chinese government applies its own cybersecurity policy to silence Uyghur communication, expression, and identity.

The Chinese Uyghurs face significant opposition from the Chinese government, especially in the recent years. Some Chinese Uyghurs desire independence from China, creating tension with the Chinese government. In the early 1990’s, the Chinese government attempted to integrate Xinjiang socially and ethnically by increasing the population of Han Chinese within Xinjiang.[4] However, it is also at this time that the Chinese government implemented increasingly harsher religious restrictions in Xinjiang, due to the government’s belief Uyghur religion and political views run antithetical to the party line. These restrictions were tightened even further after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumpi.[5] For example, in 2015 China banned students and teachers from fasting and ordered restaurants to stay open during Ramadan.[6] The increase of government regulations in Xinjiang has created more tension and violence in the region. Violence between Uyghur separatists and Han Chinese continue to the present day[7] and the state views Uyghur separatists as part of a global jihad, especially connected with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which China believes has ties to Al-Qaeda.[8]

China likely perceives the Uyghurs as a threat due to its general concern with any collective action movement, a goal for some Uyghurs.[9] A 2013 study about China’s social media censorship practices illustrated that the Chinese government is not concerned with expressing individual criticism, such as an individual communicating their disapproval of Chinese politicians and policies.[10] But if this criticism encourages mobilization towards collective action, the post will be flagged as inappropriate and likely removed.[11] Flagging occurred regardless of whether the post expressed criticism or praise of China,[12] the only common link was a call for mobilization.[13] It is important to keep these findings in mind as a framework for China’s censorship of Uyghur communications and expression.

China’s vague legislation and ambiguous legal phrases help reinforce the Chinese government’s suppression of collective expression. For example, China’s 2015 Anti-Terrorism Bill defines terrorism as:

Any advocacy or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage, or threat, aims to create social panic, undermine public safety, infringe on personal and property rights, or coerce a state organ or an international organization, in order to achieve political, ideological, or other objectives.[14]

As is the case with other Chinese laws, the Bill contains vague language that is open for interpretation, leaving ample room for state interpretation of the term “terrorism.” This means the term could be expanded to include activists or anyone else with views at odds with the Communist Party.[15] In addition, the phrase “social panic” invokes collective action as per the 2013 study mentioned above. The importance of suppressing collective action is a guiding principle in how China assesses threats and, therefore, why China broadly views Uyghurs as a threatening movement.

In addition, in 2015 China began to enact expansive new national security legislation to specifically address extremists’ use of information and communication technology (ICT). It is likely that violence and unrest in Xinjiang acted as a catalyst for this legislation. It is important to note that these laws do not necessarily provide many new provisions or practices, but instead are seen by academics and analysts as legal support for existing Chinese government activity.[16] Similar to the nature of recent Chinese national security laws, this new law is vague and broad allowing the Chinese government to interpret and regulate legislation as needed.[17] The National Security Law, which passed in June 2015, openly stresses the importance of national sovereignty and state stability. The law describes the significance of “protect(ing) people’s fundamental interests” and explicitly states that China has national security interests in cyberspace in addition to diverse arenas such as outer space, the Arctic, and oceans.[18] The law specifically recognizes the Internet as a key medium within China. It emphasizes Beijing should maintain sovereignty over the Internet in addition to providing “secure and controllable” information systems.[19]

The vagueness of regulations offers too wide of a definition for what the state describes as state endangerment. State endangerment is likely to mean anything that undermines national security. Researchers believe this will significantly reduce any role government criticism may have and others consider the law to allow regulations on the Xinjiang region to continue indefinitely.[20] The Chinese government’s exact methods of its strict censorship of the Internet in Xinjiang are unknown. Although, it is safe to assume Chinese prefers to perform mass censorship of programs than scrub for individual content. For example, in 2009 the Chinese government blocked or shut access to the Internet in Xinjiang for ten months.[21]

Although federal legislation was created with issues in Xinjiang in mind, China also directly created new legislation and practices specific to Xinjiang in order to severely limit the flow of information from Chinese Uyghurs. These regulations began in the weeks leading up to the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill and intend to reduce anonymity of those using ICT products. ICT companies and those in Xinjiang who provide instant communications services and online storage or audiovisual sharing services must register their services or set up servers in the region.[22]  Users of such services must also register with the state using a phone number or a national ID number.[23]

Xinjiang residents have attempted to evade such regulations. Uyghurs in Xinjiang use VPNs to get past censors and use WeChat, a Chinese social-media service that is difficult to censor due to its direct private group messaging.[24] Chinese authorities have suspended access to WeChat and 16 other social media platforms in response. [25] Some Uyghurs have responded to the increase in Chinese censorship by spreading material by way of jump drives or switching to non-smart phones as Uyghurs believe a lack of connectivity to the Internet is more secure.[26]

The private sector, consisting of domestic and foreign ICT companies, plays a key role in the management and implementation of the Chinese government’s digital communication policies. Chinese businesses are expected to ultimately support the state’s goals. In April 2016, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, held a meeting of influential technology leaders to describe his vision for the future of the Chinese Internet as well as a “clean and healthy cyberspace.”[27] The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Bill explicitly focuses on the responsibility of the private sector in the state’s efforts to prevent and investigate terrorist attacks. The law requires that companies provide decryption and technical support, usually internal monitoring, in some capacity to assist public and state security organizations. The Chinese government does not offer tangible examples for actions that would constitute complying with these requests; therefore, companies currently have a limited understanding of how to comply.

It is important to note that execution of the bill and its requirements for ICT companies to assist in decryption and internal monitoring relies on local governments for enforcement. For example, it may be the case specific ministries will choose not to implement the law at all.  The decentralization of law enforcement makes it difficult to understand the application on extremists in the country at large, or privacy of citizens for that matter, due to the irregularities in application.

Chinese technology companies have actively altered their businesses to satisfy Chinese government policy goals. Many companies create special departments or increase their workforce to address digital communication by Uyghurs. Tencent, a Chinese company, has added more than 600 employees with specialized knowledge, such as knowledge of the Uyghur language, to monitor content.[28] However, some Chinese ICT companies are having trouble correctly identifying what qualifies as harmful content and defer to the Ministry of Public Security to ensure higher efficiency in stopping the spread of extremist content. These difficulties in defining harmful content have large implications as it is more likely the China government will broadly define harmful content as supposed to taking a more nuanced approach. The only explicit understanding of harmful content came in April 2015, when the regional High Court, People’s Procuratorate and Public Security departments issues a list of banned audiovisual products that promote violence and terrorism, most notably those that teach how to create explosive weaponry.[29]

China attempts to prevent the Chinese Uyghurs from using the Internet to find a sense of belonging and connection to the rest of the Muslim world–something that is otherwise absent in mainstream Chinese society. The Chinese government largely views Islamic content to be dangerous to national security, as the Uyghurs constitute a collective and global movement. Some Uyghur separatists and affiliated organizations such as the Turkestan Islamic Party use the Internet to promote and share religious, sometimes jihadist information. The Turkistan Islamic Party, formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is active in disseminating extremist propaganda online. Content released by the TIP on its website and other social media sites is mainly used to encourage prospect jihadi-Uyghurs to publicize their attacks.[30] The TIP have also released Uyghur language videos praising violent attacks, such as those at a train station in Urumqi.[31]

Chinese oppression of Uyghur access to digital services and Uyghur digital speech is effectively suppressing Uyghur identity. China is not only preventing jihadist information from being disseminated, but also information about a broader religious communities and practices. By limiting connections to the broader Muslim world, the Chinese government limits Uyghurs from acquiring information about how to be a pious Muslim. These policies not only inhibit practices of Uyghur culture, but also negatively impact local commerce and development, which appears to be yet another reason for Uyghurs to be unsatisfied with the Chinese government.

These oppressive tactics appear to be increasing with growing budgets. For the first time since 2013, China’s domestic security budget ($25.6 million) will surpass it defense spending.[32] A budget increase could be linked to the current construction a big data platform capable of massive state surveillance,  or what has described by a Chinese engineer as a “unified information environment.”[33] The Chief Engineer has hinted that the project would be able to cross reference bank account information, consumption patterns, surveillance camera footage and job-related information to create “portrait(s) of a suspect(s).”[34] There appears to be no official release of such a program or the possibility that such a program is not in use already.An executive for the project said that this platform would be tested in regions where there was violent opposition to Communist rule, specifically focused on Xinjiang and Tibet.[35] This platform may be further evidence of China’s broad programs and laws as well as its targeted execution of such. This relationship is due to its stronger concern of organized collective movements rather than individual content, which is a larger focus within Western cyberspace.

Given the current relevance of and fear of global jihad as well as China’s preparation to pass a new cybersecurity law, it does not appear the Chinese government will reduce its broad censorship of the Uyghurs anytime soon.


[1] Edward Wong, “China Ranks Last of 65 Nations in Internet Freedom,” The New York Times, October 29, 2015.

[2] Peter Fuhrman, “Government Cyber-Surveillance Is the Norm in China — and It’s Popular,” The Washington Post, January 29, 2016.

[3] Faculti, How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression – Gary King, accessed June 3, 2016.

[4] “Xinjiang | Autonomous Region, China |,” accessed August 15, 2016.

[5] Ned Levin, “Web Preaches Jihad to China’s Muslim Uighurs,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2014, sec. World.

[6] “China Bans Muslims from Fasting Ramadan in Xinjiang,” accessed August 16, 2016.

[7] Richard Finney, “As Many as 700 Died in Xinjiang Violence Over Last Two Years, Rights Group Says,” Radio Free Asia, March 3, 2015.

[8] Levin, “Web Preaches Jihad to China’s Muslim Uighurs.”

[9] Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 2 (May 2013).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Faculti, How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression – Gary King.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Zunyou Zhou, “China’s Comprehensive Counter-Terrorism Law,” The Diplomat, January 23, 2016.

[15] Eric Geller, “China Expert Adam Segal: U.S. Companies Should Worry about Beijing’s New Anti-Terrorism Law,” The Daily Dot, December 29, 2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Josh Chin, “China Gives Police Broad Powers Over Foreign Nonprofits,” Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2016, sec. World.

[18] “China Passes New National Security Law Extending Control over Internet,” The Guardian, July 1, 2015.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Chris Hogg, “China Restores Xinjiang Internet,” BBC, May 14, 2010, sec. Asia-Pacific.

[22] Gao Bo and Cao Yin, “Xinjiang Enforces New Website Rules,” China Daily, January 9, 2015.

[23] “China | Country Report | Freedom on the Net | 2015,” accessed May 20, 2016.

[24] Levin, “Web Preaches Jihad to China’s Muslim Uighurs.”

[25] “Police Increase Checks of Uyghur Smartphone Users in Xinjiang,” Radio Free Asia, January 8, 2016.

[26] Levin, “Web Preaches Jihad to China’s Muslim Uighurs.”

[27] Eva Dou, “In Xi Jinping’s Meeting with Chinese Tech Chiefs, A Reminder of State Control – China Real Time Report – WSJ,” accessed April 22, 2016.

[28] Cao Yin, “Online Videos Help to Spur Terror attacks|Focus|,” China Daily, July 8, 2014.

[29] “Xinjiang Enforces New Website Rules – China –,” accessed August 17, 2016.

[30] Levin, “Web Preaches Jihad to China’s Muslim Uighurs.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] “China to Spend ‘At Least’ U.S.$25 Billion on ‘Maintaining Stability,’” Radio Free Asia, accessed August 16, 2016.

[33] Sean Gallagher, “China Is Building a Big Data Platform for ‘precrime,’” Ars Technica, March 9, 2016.

[34] Shai Oster, “China Tries Its Hand at Pre-Crime,” Bloomberg, March 3, 2016.

[35] Ibid.


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.