According to a report in the New York Times, China began cutting phone service to Xinjiang residents who download and use messaging apps and other software to avoid Internet controls.
China makes its move in Muslim region following Paris attacks
The New York Times cited five people whose phone service was cut in the Xinjiang autonomous region, not surprisingly these people wished to remain anonymous. China has had difficulties in the divisive region that his home to a large Muslim community and has cracked down on “terrorists” in recent days. This crackdown even included the use of flamethrowers to flush out suspected militants hiding in a cave earlier this week. China maintains that those in hiding were responsible for a deadly mine attack that left dozens dead or seriously injured.
Each of the five that the New York Times spoke to were allegedly told by their wireless providers to go to the police station to have their service returned.
“Due to police notice, we will shut down your cellphone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law,” read a text message received by one of the people, who lives in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi. “If you have any questions, please consult the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.”
After receiving the text, she did indeed call the police and was told that this was meant to crackdown on those whose phones are not linked to their identification, have used V.P.N.s or downloaded apps like WhatsApp or Snapchat.
There are holes in the Great Firewall
Despite the fact that China has spent untold billions policing the Internet, they surely know that this is near impossible. The best they can do after outright blocking sites as they have with companies like Google, is threaten those that try to get around the Great Firewall with severe consequences. For the most part, that works. Severe consequences in China are pretty severe and the government needs only print stories about the imprisonment of VPN users to discourage a large part of the population.
Living in China, I had no problem checking my Gmail and never had any issues with the police but knew a number of people working in schools that were subjected to raids from cyber police squads. It just goes with the territory.
While China has largely closed most proxy servers and has had some success going after VPN users, this latest action of shutting down mobile service is a new trick in the government’s bag.
It’s all about Xinjiang?
While the cutting off of telecom service is new, Chinese Internet crackdowns in Xinjiang are quite common. In 2009, the entirety of the Internet was completely shut down for nearly six months following riots between the Uigher minority and Han Chinese majority. Uighers are predominately Muslim and make up roughly 40% of Xinjiang’s population.
“Xinjiang is really the frontier for Internet surveillance in China because of the terrorism issue and the risk of violence,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director for Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
Mr. Bequelin believes that the suspension of mobile networks may simply have been a knee-jerk reaction from the Chinese following the attacks in Paris. The shutdown in 2009 simply made more people angry and they decided to show that in public.
“The lesson from 2009 was that it was a bad idea,” he said. “You cut off the Internet, you may actually end up getting more people in the streets.”