… as we approached Aba County, something changed. I stopped getting messages on WeChat and QQ, China’s most popular mobile apps…When I tried to load e-mail, an error occurred: “Could not authenticate cellular data network: PDP authentication failure.” I still had a signal—the little 3G icon was there and everything. But the signal didn’t seem to contain any data.
Stories of Internet censorship in China often focus on surveillance and social media filtering, practices that violate the rights to free expression and privacy of all users in mainland China. But those living in remote, embattled ethnic minority regions of the country face a far more bleak reality when it comes to using the Internet.
Prolonged network shutdowns have become a regular occurrence in Uyghur and Tibetan minority regions of western China, as Christopher Beam describes in the New Republic article quoted above. Chinese authorities believe that foreign forces, such as the Tibetan Government in Exile and World Uyghur Congress are involved in the organization of separatist activities in China. Seeking to contain unrest and discontent in conflict areas, authorities have imposed Internet shutdowns, depriving individuals of their right to communication online. In some extreme cases, network shutdowns have extended to local mobile networks.
This kind of “political punishment” began in Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures with 2008 political riots in Lhasa. The Internet was shutdown in March of 2008, and briefly restored in December 2008, only to be cut off again a few months later when the first self-immolation protest took place. Internet access has remained unstable in the area ever since.
According to Tibetan dissident writer Woeser's blog, Internet and mobile SMS connections for more than 18 counties from Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture were cut off from the global Internet for at least three months beginning in February 2009. A number of counties in Aba Prefecture, predominantly Tibetan, suffered a similar fate. Connection disruptions now have become a norm in conflict areas where self-immolation protests and anti-government demonstrations are frequent. Most recently, a network shutdown occurred in Diru county, following protests against a policy that required Tibetans in a local village to put Chinese national flags on their rooftops.
The Xinjiang region, mainly populated by the Muslim Uyghur minority group, has faced similar challenges. Amid protests in 2009, residents faced a nearly year-long Internet shutdown and were even deprived of telephone service for a week at the height of the unrest. Since then, network disruptions have happened on a smaller scale during politically sensitive periods. In March 2013, protests erupted after a seven-year-old Uyghur boy was stabbed to death by a Han Chinese in Piqan county of Turpan Prefecture, leading to a three-day Internet blackout. This past June, the Internet was again shut down temporarily in Urumqi to stop the spread of rumors related to forced demolitions in Piqan county — 27 people were killed [zh] in riots during a violent confrontation between protestors and police surrounding the demolitions.
These shutdowns have violated citizens’ rights to communication of expression, and have left them unable to seek information, goods, and services through the Internet. They have also given local authorities a monopoly on information — control over news and analysis of these regional conflicts now sits firmly in the hands of the government.
For example, the above-mentioned demolition protest in Piqan county was characterized as a “terrorist attack” by state media. When the Uyghur community attempted to report on the situation, spreading an alternative version of the story using Sina Weibo, the Internet blackout expanded from Piqan county to Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang. Citizen journalists in Bachu county faced a similar situation last month, when both local authorities and state media quickly labeled riots as a terrorist attack, thus justifying an information crackdown. Many Han Chinese have fully embraced official state explanations of conflicts in Xinjiang and have even criticized ethnic groups for not being grateful for preferential ethnic policies, such as exemption from the One-Child Policy. As the online public sphere has been dominated by Han Chinese, mainstream public opinion has further marginalized ethnic communities in unrest areas.
Internet shutdowns in China have not been limited to areas of ethnic conflict. In June 2009, the Internet was shut down for a few days in the Hubei province city of Shishou, following riots triggered by the alleged murder of a young woman working in a local hotel. But Shishou is connected with other cities by a major highway — information about the incident and crackdown spread through Chinese social media and was even translated into English for global readers. Ultimately, the shutdown did not paralyze the city as it might have in Xinjiang or Tibet.
Within the Chinese Communist Party, many have questioned the value of this “hard” practice of social control. Softer approaches have been used in much of the country and seen as effective, but they have not been applied to far west border areas where conflict has become endemic. With state officials suggesting that ethnic minorities may be linked to terrorist organizations, they have justified harder tactics on the grounds that these groups are a risk to national security.
Thus far, Internet shutdowns in China have been regional and targeted at specific areas of unrest, with one exception — for an hour in April 2012, all users in mainland China were unable to visit overseas websites and foreign IPs could not access the Chinese network. Many speculated that the disruption was caused by the upgrade of the Chinese Great Firewall. The incident demonstrated the ability of the Chinese authority to cut off the domestic network if and when necessary.
More and more countries have begun to resort to Internet shutdowns when facing mass protests. During the Arab Spring, both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Assad regime in Syria severed Internet connections in an effort to control protests. A nation-wide Internet blackout took place in Sudan after riots erupted in northern Khartoum in September 2013. But while shutdowns have lasted just a few days in most of these cases, China’s minority regions face a different paradigm. Prolonged blackouts have exacerbated minority citizens’ marginalization. Literally disconnected from the rest of the country, these communities have been left on the wrong side of what appears to be a growing digital divide.