Government Repression Cannot Solve the Problem of Fake News

The provincial government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has just passed a law that went into effect last week that will issue large fines of up to 500,000 RMB to individuals spreading false news and harmful content online, harmful being defined as damaging to national security, religious and ethnic harmony or seeking to overthrow the socialist system. The Chinese government takes great pains to control the spread of information online and is doubly concerned about anything touching upon events in East Turkestan.

This new regional law is in addition to the many national level ones that already exist regarding punishment for spreading rumors and the provisions in the national anti-terrorism law and its regional implementation guidelines for punishment of those spreading “extremist” content. Restrictions on the internet have been stricter in East Turkestan for years. The entire system was shut down for 10 months in 2009, and more recent examples include increasing restrictions on the use of VPNs- individuals detected using one had their internet shut down in 2015 and one young man was charged with using “restricted terrorist software” for having one on his phone. Uyghurs suffer particularly harsh penalties- one boy was jailed for life for watching videos on his phone; another died in prison for the same crime. The regional government has been requiring real name registration for cell phones and other digital devices, while it has become increasingly common for smart phones to simply be confiscated.

The term “fake news” 虚假信息 in the new law’s title evokes the issue that has recently become a hot topic in the United States. In the US the term refers to stories designed to look legitimate which are spread via social media or websites designed for the purpose, either to generate ad revenue or drive an extremist narrative. It is less clear how authorities who passed this law will define the term given the fact that true information is often suppressed in China, in addition to reports that are actually false. Indeed, the core of the issue is that although China is often held up as the ultimate example of an authoritarian regime successfully controlling new communications technology for its own ends, its complete control over the media and the ability to monitor and shut down blogs and websites has not made the public more trusting of official news sources- quite the opposite.

The government began a crackdown on ‘spreading rumors’ in 2013, with punishments including fines and even jail time. With the decline of Weibo and rise of Weixin (aka WeChat), the authorities are making an effort to deal with the more difficult to censor platform. The official think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that users are more likely to believe what they read on Weixin as communication on it tends to be through personal networks, and reported that as many as 2.1 million “rumors” are intercepted per day. They recommended that the government try to strengthen official sources of information and to have a way for netizens to flag false information.   The State Internet Information Office even set out guidelines saying that only official media accounts could print or reprint current events articles on their public Weixin accounts. None of this will solve the fundamental problem of the public seeing the official media as untrustworthy.

The spread of rumors and false news stories can indeed be harmful to society. Uyghurs were themselves victims of this in 2009 as rumors spread in the wake of the unrest in Urumqi of Uyghurs attacking Han with syringes. The authorities’ mishandling of the situation and citizens’ suspicion of the official media’s reporting exacerbated the hysteria. The passage of this latest local law will do nothing to reduce the spread of rumors, and there is every reason to believe that it could be used to punish those spreading true reports as well. It is only a free media, not one that serves the interests of the authorities, can seek the truth in current events and win the trust of the public. Although media around the world may be facing challenges in this, it is clear that repression only worsens the problem; it cannot solve it.


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Dissidents Call for the Incoming U.S. Administration to Push China on Human Rights Abuses

A large panel of dissidents called on the incoming Trump administration to reevaluate the U.S. approach towards China in a hearing before the Congressional Executive Commission on China on December 7. Each participant offered advice for President-elect Trump, and all seemed to sense that the US-China relationship is at a turning point. Increasing tensions between the two nations have been mostly due to trade policy and national security. However, the human rights situation in China has deteriorated under Xi Jinping as lawyers and activists are imprisoned and religious and ethnic minorities suffer increased repression. Commission Chairman Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey said he is among those whose hopes that liberalizing trade with China would lead to increased freedom for the Chinese people have been disappointed.

Ms. Rebiya Kadeer spoke on the situation faced by the Uyghurs, emphasizing the codification of repression in the series of laws Beijing has recently passed including the counter-terror and cyber security measures which have elements clearly aimed at the Uyghur population. She called on the incoming administration to be critical of the Chinese authorities’ assertion that repression of the Uyghurs is a necessary part of fighting radical Islam.

See the video of the hearing and a transcript of Ms. Kadeer’s testimony below.

Dissidents Who Have Suffered for Human Rights in China: A Look Back and A Look Forward

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Testimony by Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, Uyghur Democracy Leader

Since my release from a Chinese prison in 2005, I have reported to the Commission the continuing human rights violations targeting the Uyghur people. As the Commission has noted in its annual reports, political freedoms in East Turkestan are among the most limited in China. The right to association and assembly is prohibited and freedom of speech is punished severely, as the case of imprisoned Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti illustrates. Economic discrimination, erosion of language rights and religious restrictions add to the already depressing condition of Uyghur human rights.

President Xi Jinping has attempted to codify these violations in a series of repressive laws, such as the ones on counter-terror and cybersecurity. Implementation measures of the counter-terror law at the regional level in East Turkestan are a clear indicator of who China intends to target with these draconian measures.

Nevertheless, China believes it should go further with its repression. Arbitrary detentions, forced disappearance and extra-judicial killings continue. Recent media reports indicate the Chinese government has implemented a policy to confiscate passports in East Turkestan to limit the international movement of Uyghurs. This is the formalization of a policy that Uyghur human rights groups have documented since 2006.

Islam is a cornerstone of the Uyghur identity. China has adopted a series of religious laws at the national and regional level (2015) that curb Uyghur rights to freedom of worship. Private communal religious education has been targeted for several years under these measures; however, this year Chinese authorities adopted rules to report parents who encourage their children to undertake religious activities.

During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations my colleagues and I have worked hard to bring Uyghur issues to the attention of the U.S. political community. Our organizations regularly brief State Department officials and legislators at the U.S. Congress. We have managed to mainstream the Uyghur issue into U.S. government reporting on human rights. Most notably, I was privileged to meet President George Bush on two occasions; the first time in June 2007 and the second in July 2008. These meetings placed Uyghurs at the center of U.S. policy concerns over human rights in China.

China’s heavy handed policies towards Uyghurs are creating instability and desperation among the Uyghur people. These policies have become self-fulfilling in some respects, as some Uyghurs have become radicalized in their effort to oppose China’s repression. The United States should be concerned about these developments as it is in the nation’s interest to support the democratic aspirations of the overwhelming majority of Uyghurs. Stability in East Turkestan, China and the Central and East Asian regions offers the opportunity to spread American values such as freedom and rights.

The administration of President-elect Donald Trump should continue support for Uyghur democrats and step up public concern over rights conditions in East Turkestan with Chinese officials. Any sign that the United States is ready to relinquish its commitment to raising human rights concerns in favor of achieving policy gains elsewhere will be a victory for China.

Furthermore, the incoming administration should exercise extreme skepticism regarding China’s narrative that increased militarization and securitization in East Turkestan are justified in fighting radical Islam. The repression that accompanies security measures enables China to keep firm control of the region and suppress legitimate Uyghur claims for greater political, economic, social and cultural freedoms. The Trump administration should understand the situation in East Turkestan in similar terms to the Tibet. It is a struggle for cultural survival in the face of formidable assimilative actions by the state.

Let us be clear. Pressure works. My presence here today is testament to the success of pressurizing Chinese officials. My colleagues and I will continue to put forward the Uyghur case to the international community. It is the responsibility of concerned governments to take this case directly to China and urge reform. The Uyghur people greatly appreciate the United States’ support of our plight.; however, we ask the incoming administration to publicly raise the Uyghur issue with China.

In conclusion, I offer these recommendations to the Trump administration:

1. Prioritize Uyghur issues, especially during the Human Rights Dialogue and the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

2. Urge China to allow foreign diplomats and journalists unrestricted access to East Turkestan to independently document the conditions in the region.

3. Call on China to free Ilham Tohti and his students and all writers and reporters.

4. Ask China to change its repressive policy, which is root cause of all bloody incidents in Uyghur region.

5. Meet Uyghur leaders and activists at the White House

6. Create a special coordinator office at the State Department for the Uyghurs

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Forbidding Children from Participating in Religion is Nothing New in East Turkestan

Last week the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region announced a new education law that will come into force on November first in the region’s state media (for full Chinese text, see here). The most widely reported aspect of the new law was the provision that parents and guardians are forbidden to “encourage or force” their children to participate in religious activities and saying that any “person or group” has the right to put a stop to such activities and report the parents. Those who are reported can have their children taken away and sent to “specialist schools for rectification.”

This law does indeed have disturbing implications, encouraging citizens to spy upon one another and increasing intrusion of the state into familial relationships. The law encourages reporting of parents who push their children into “extremism, terrorism and underground scripture studies,” lumping legitimate religious expression together with extremism, thereby casting the widest possible net. This is in line with previous laws encouraging people to report one another, such as this one listing 53 different proscribed behaviors.

Unfortunately the education law is not a departure from policies that have existed for decades. In 1993 the “Implementing Measures of the Law on the Protection of Minors” outlawed parents and guardians from allowing children to engage in religious activities, and signs prohibiting the entrance of those under 18 years of age are posted outside every mosque in East Turkestan. The regulation was updated in 2009, restating that parents were not permitted to “lure or force” children to engage in religious activity. The national level Law for the Protection of Minors contains no such clause, suggesting that these regulations are aimed specifically at Uyghurs.

It should be noted that these laws seem to contradict the rights laid out in the Chinese Constitution, as well as Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which China as a member of the General Assembly is obliged to observe. Children elsewhere in China, including Muslims, are permitted to engage in legally sanctioned religious activity. There is some evidence that restrictions elsewhere are tightening, at least on an informal basis; take for instance the government of Gansu reiterating that religion was not permitted in schools after a video of a Hui girl reciting the Koran went viral and prompted an Islamophobic backlash online. For more on restrictions on freedom of religion please see our report “Sacred Right Defiled: China’s Iron-Fisted Repression of Uyghur Religious Freedom.”

Children at an anti-extremism class in Akto County. Photo from China Daily.

Children at an anti-extremism class in Akto County. Photo from China Daily.

Schools are an important site for indoctrination across China, and in XUAR this takes on anti-religion message that is pointedly related to national security. The dangers of religious activity are taught in XUAR schools beginning at the elementary school level, at least in schools with mostly minority students. On the 12th of October a meeting was held in Urumqi to discuss the morality and ideology curriculum, attended by leaders from the education departments not only of XUAR but also Inner Mongolia, Guangxi, Qinghai, Hainan and Guizhou- all provinces with significant minority populations, suggesting that the experience of the XUAR education department perhaps holds lessons for them.

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