James Palmer writes: On 5 July 2009, residents of Xinjiang, China’s far western province, found the internet wasn’t working. It’s a regular frustration in remote areas, but it rapidly became apparent that this time it wasn’t coming back. The government had hit the kill switch on the entire province when a protest in the capital Ürümqi by young Uighur men (of the area’s indigenous Turkic population) turned into a riot against the Han Chinese, in which at least 197 people were killed.
The shutdown was intended to prevent similar uprisings by the Uighur, long subjected to religious and cultural repression, and to halt revenge attacks by Han. In that respect, it might have worked; officially, there was no fatal retaliation, but in retrospect the move came to be seen as an error.
Speaking anonymously, a Chinese security advisor described the blackout as ‘a serious mistake… now we are years behind where we could have been in tracking terrorists’. Young Uighur learnt to see the internet as hostile territory – a lesson reinforced by the arrest of Ilham Tohti, a popular professor of economics, on trumped-up charges of extremism linked to an Uighur-language website he administered. ‘We turn off our phones before we talk politics’, a tech-savvy Uighur acquaintance remarked.
The Uighur continued to consume digital media, but increasingly in off-line form, whether viewing discs full of Turkish TV series or jihadist propaganda passed on memory sticks. Where once Chinese media reports claimed that arrested Uighur had been visiting ‘separatist’ websites, now they noted drawers full of burnt DVDs and flash drives.
A series of brutal terrorist attacks early in 2014 reinforced the lesson for the Chinese authorities; by driving Uighur off-line they had thrown away valuable data. Last summer, the Public Security University in Beijing began recruiting overseas experts in data analysis, including, I’m told, former members of the Israeli security forces.
In Xinjiang, tightened control means less information, and the Chinese government has always had a fraught relationship with information – private and public. Today, an explosion in available data promises to open up sources of knowledge previously tightly locked away. To some, this seems a shift toward democracy. But technocrats within the government also see it as a way to create a more efficient form of authoritarianism. [Continue reading…]