HONG KONG—Authorities in China's northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have passed a law making it a criminal offense to discuss separatism on the Internet following months of ethnic strife.
Xinjiang's People's Congress Standing Committee passed the "Information Promotion Bill" last week banning people in the region from using the Internet in any way that undermines national unity, incites ethnic separatism or harms social stability.
Armed police now stand guard in public places around the XUAR and are detaining anyone found with footage of ethnic riots that erupted in the regional capital Urumqi last July.
Meanwhile, local residents and officials said Urumqi was tense and fearful following a series of stabbings in public places with hypodermic syringes in early September.
"Ever since the needle stabbing incidents ... there have been armed police on the buses, especially at night, checking people's bags," a resident surnamed Zhou said.
"Now, whenever we ride the bus or go to the supermarket or other public places, they check everyone's bags. This is done out of desperation."
Hunt for evidence
A government official in Urumqi said that the hunt was on to collect evidence related to the recent ethnic violence, which began July 5 after police suppressed a peaceful demonstration of Uyghurs and has left 197 mostly Han Chinese residents dead, according to official media.
"The public security bureau started trying to collect evidence, pulling stones and rocks out of the rubble, trying to find traces of blood," the government official said.
"But there wasn't enough evidence left behind. It had all been cleared away to make the streets clean again. It looked as if nothing had happened, but in fact, the evidence was all gone."
Meanwhile, Urumqi authorities were stepping up controls to ensure that no photos or footage of the July violence was leaked to the outside world.
"They are preventing people from leaving Xinjiang with any photos or video footage of the July 5 incident," an informed source in the city said.
"If they catch anyone trying to do that, they'll be detained."
Sichuan-based Internet engineer Pu Fei said a number of cell phone users in Xinjiang had received garbled SMS messages in recent weeks, possibly resulting from their use of "forbidden" words on the list used by government communications filters.
Communications networks in the troubled region have been closed several times in the wake of the July 5 ethnic violence in Urumqi, and any online discussion of the tensions resulted in blockages and closures of Internet and cell phone networks.
"It's very rare to see such a starkly worded piece of legislation," Pu said. "Until now, the regulations have just reminded everyone to avoid certain topics. Now it's been made into law. I think this shows a pessimistic outlook for freedom of speech in this country."
"It seems as if [what happened in] Xinjiang has had a bad effect on everything."
Munich-based World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Rashit said the legislation should be applied, if at all, to the whole of China, not just to Xinjiang, as people all over the country are discussing the ethnic strife.
"Now, the Uyghurs, who have already been denied their freedom of expression by the Chinese government, are being prevented from expressing themselves either inside China or overseas," he said.
Legal experts said the new legislation was based on rather vague definitions of "subversion."
"The principle behind this piece of legislation is in accordance with China's national security legislation, but it lacks a detailed explanation about what exactly subverting the state means, and what incitement to violence actually consists of," said professor Wang Youjin, of the Chinese University of Political Science and Law.
"There are very few detailed provisions in the National Security Law, and this is causing difficulties."
Residents of Urumqi have frequently reported being cut off from the outside world entirely, as the authorities block media and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Officials say terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists used the Internet, telephones and mobile text messages to spread rumors and hatred during the ethnic violence, sparking one of the most comprehensive Internet shutdowns ever reported.
Some footage of the riots has managed to appear on video-sharing sites like YouTube in spite of the clampdown, mostly posted by exiled Uyghurs outside of China.
Urumqi resident Zhou said he was having trouble keeping in touch with his two grown children studying at overseas universities.
"Our eldest daughter is studying at a university overseas. We can't make international phone calls ... and we can't reach her online, either...Basically we have totally lost touch with them," he said.
"We rely on friends in Beijing and other places to relay messages. Complaining about it makes no difference. Who is stronger, the individual or the government?"
"There's nothing we ordinary people can do except sit and wait. What choice do we have? We aren't an armed, military organization."
Original reporting in Cantonese by Hai Lan, and in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.