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China is cutting mobile phone services in its Muslim-heavy far west

Reuters/Petar Kujundzic
A man talks on his phone in Urumqi, Xinjiang.
By Zheping Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

China’s government shut down mobile phone service in the far west territory of Xinjiang for residents using common tools to evade internet censorship after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, The New York Times reported today (Nov. 24).

Beijing has publicly pledged to wipe out homegrown terrorists in Xinjiang, who are often conflated with separatists from the Muslim Uyghur ethnic groups in the region, since the Paris attacks. State media reported last week that 28 terrorists “under the command of a foreign extremist group” were killed in a 56-day police raid in Xinjiang. The army is reportedly using flamethrowers to rout out suspects from caves.

The next step appears to be targeting people who use tools the government fears could be used to plan attacks or contact accomplices overseas.

Xinjiang police began cutting mobile phone service of people who had downloaded foreign messaging apps and other software last week. One local resident told the Times people affected include:

  • People who haven’t linked their identification to their mobile number. (Starting Sept. 1, a real-name registration policy requires all Chinese residents to link their mobile numbers with their identification.)
  • People who use VPNs, or virtual private networks, to cloak their locations to get access to banned websites.
  • People who have downloaded foreign messaging apps including WhatsApp or Telegram.

The shutdowns in the Xinjiang region, home to an estimated 10 million Muslim Uyghurs, are targeting activity that is widespread across China. WhatsApp is much less popular in China than homegrown WeChat but still has an estimated 23 million users there, while Telegram was popular with groups including human rights lawyers and their supporters until it was blocked earlier this year. As many as 90 million Chinese may use VPNs to jump the Great Firewall, tech analysts estimate.

China’s Great Firewall—the elaborate machinery that the government uses to censor the internet—includes a long list of banned foreign websites or services, including Facebook and Twitter, which are deemed politically sensitive. In 2009, the internet was completely shut down for almost six months in Xinjiang, after riots between local Uyghurs and the Han Chinese.

People whose phones are affected are notified by text message, and asked to “consult the cyber police” at their local police station. One resident told the Times his phone service will be halted for three days for “jumping the Great Firewall.” Another one said it was unclear when his might return.

Some of China’s internet users complained about the suspensions on Twitter-like Sina Weibo, while others supported the crackdown. Several Weibo users from Xinjiang said their phone service was still suspended more than a week after the Paris attacks.

The mobile service suspension in Xinjiang could just be a blueprint for a full shutdown in China, whenever the government considers it is necessary, some worried. “This trick can be used in Xinjiang, then it can be used in the whole country in the future,”one blogger wrote (link in Chinese, registration required). “To those who support controls, in case the government reaches out to control you one day, please copy your comment here, post it on your bedside, and smile to it a hundred times a day.”

The discussion about Xinjiang’s mobile phone service suspension is being partly censored online.

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