In the Chinese government’s latest move to tighten even further its strict electronic surveillance in Xinjiang, mobile services are now being shut down for residents who use software that allows them to circumvent Internet filters or those who have downloaded foreign messaging apps.
According to The New York Times, this latest initiative began shortly after the attacks in Paris earlier this month. Residents told the Times that their telecom provider informed them that they would have to pay a visit to their local police station in order to have their services restored.
One of the text messages received by a Urumqi resident read:
“Due to police notice, we will shut down your cellphone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law. If you have any questions, please consult the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.”
And here is how one resident described his pleasant trip to the police station:
It’s unclear how many of Xinjiang’s roughly 20 million people have been affected. One of the residents whose service was shut down said that when he went to the Urumqi police station, there was a line of about 20 people, including several foreigners, waiting to ask the police to restore their mobile phone accounts.
He said he used a virtual private network to get access to Instagram, and that at the police station, an officer “took away my ID card and cellphone for a few minutes and then gave them back to me.” He added, “They told me the reason for my suspension is that I ‘used software to jump the Great Firewall.’”
He said he was told that his phone service would be suspended for three days, and added that he would no longer use virtual private networks. “It is too troublesome,” he said. “I just have to give up my Instagram from now on.”
Along with those using VPNs to hop over the Great Firewall, the crackdown also targeted those who had downloaded foreign messaging software like WhatsApp or Telegram.
Many foreign messaging services such as Facebook or Twitter are banned in China, but still readily available through the magic of a VPN. Internet censors don’t generally try to close this loophole because of the adverse effects it would have on both foreign and local businesses.
However, Xinjiang has long been a testing ground for Beijing’s experiments in Internet censorship and surveillance. Most notably in 2009, when the Internet was shut down in the region for nearly six months after riots between the local Uighur minority and Han Chinese.
Following the Paris attacks, the Chinese government has escalated its campaign against Islamist militants and extremists in Xinjiang. Earlier this week, the PLA Daily reported that police had killed 28 people connected to a deadly coal mine attack that took place in September, even going so far as to use flamethrowers to flush them out from caves.
Beijing is also keeping pressure on its own cadres to toe the party line with a senior official earlier today questioning the loyalty of CCP members in Xinjiang, saying that some “even support participating in violent terrorist acts.”