China’s state media has launched a Uyghur language news website which it says has become an “instant” hit, but an exile group feels it’s another Beijing propaganda machine aimed at “brainwashing” the ethnic minority in the restrictive Xinjiang region who lack access to information from the outside world.
Uyghur.news.cn, a web portal launched by the official Xinhua News Agency on Sept. 15, “aims to provide authoritative, precise and timely information for Uyghur people around the world,” Xinhua said in a dispatch Tuesday.
Since the web portal’s launch, it had “proved an instant hit, attracting thousands of visitors so far” to view news, classifieds, and services sections, Xinhua said. The portal features “breaking news,” a photo section, and articles on the region’s culture.
Nur Bekri, Xinjiang’s ruling Chinese Communist Party chairman, said that the portal would “bridge the gap” between the region and the world, and help protect the “unique culture” of the Uyghurs.
But the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which speaks out on issues affecting Uyghurs inside Xinjiang and the large Uyghur exile community, said the Xinhua move was part of a government propaganda blitz.
“Now Xinhua has launched a website in the Uyghur language—that is very good. But, this agency belongs to the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party, which does not allow freedom of expression. It is just for brainwashing the Uyghur people,” WUC Executive Committee Chairman Dolkun Isa told RFA in an interview.
It is also part of an effort by the Chinese government to gloss over the “persecution” of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the international community, he said.
“And it also wants to show that the Chinese government has not stopped the Uyghur language, which is one of the reasons it draws condemnation from international organizations and other countries—because the Chinese government has banned the Uyghur language in university schools,” he said.
“Maybe that is why the Chinese government just wants to show to the international community, ‘Look, we have never banned the Uyghur language. Even Xinhua has the Uyghur language.’ I think this is just propaganda.”
Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang tightened Internet restrictions after the regional capital Urumqi was rocked in July 2009 by deadly ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese that left some 200 people dead, according to official figures.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang often complain of policies favoring Han Chinese migration into the region and the unfair allocation of resources to Chinese residents.
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney based in Washington, said that Uyghurs in China are unlikely to embrace the new website.
“The Uyghurs generally don’t believe in what the Chinese government says. They tend to believe the opposite of what the Chinese government says,” he said.
“People still continue to look for alternative sources of information … because [these] provide accurate information.”
He said that official restrictions on China’s vastly growing community of netizens, particularly those on Uyghur Internet users, will “eventually backfire.”
The Chinese government had been ineffective in influencing global opinion on its policies in Xinjiang, which have come under frequent criticism from rights groups, he said.
“Whatever the Chinese government is doing—perhaps even setting up five or six different websites—I think the world will be and has been very skeptical about their statements and propaganda campaigns,” he said.
“The Chinese government’s statements—even on the most important economic issues—do not have credibility, let alone on political and social issues. The world community has come to the conclusion that the Uyghurs … are not being fairly treated.”
Nur Bekri’s statement contains “an illogical gap,” he said, adding that whether Chinese officials try to “paint a rosy picture” of the situation in Xinjiang or portray Uyghur dissidents within China as troublemakers, “as long as they continue their propaganda campaign and oppression it’s not going to help [them] achieve so-called social stability.”
“They need to look at the policy. The policy has been a miserable failure.”
According to Isa, the government has banned a number of Uyghur websites and charged more than 130 site administrators and content contributors with “endangering state security” and other forms of “subversion” since the violence three years ago.
He said the official Uyghur-language portal was meant to replace the homegrown sites which had often carried information on issues deemed “sensitive” to Chinese authorities.
He said that the Chinese government also sought to influence the younger generation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang by targeting them through more popular media channels.
Chinese authorities commonly target websites and netizens reporting on news in Xinjiang to the outside world or which disseminate information within the region on issues of vital importance to the Uyghur community.
In August, 20 people, all believed to be Uyghurs, were jailed for using the Internet to “spread separatism,” according to official media.
The 20 were accused of being involved in five terrorist groups and attempting to “incite ethnic hatred and provoke a so-called ‘holy war’ against the nation,” according to the People’s Daily.
At the time, the WUC said the harsh sentences were intended to further prevent Uyghurs from speaking out.
“China is meting out heavy sentences to Uyghurs who use the Internet to access information that is not controlled by the authorities and who are expressing opposing political views,” the group said.
That same month, Chinese authorities interrogated outspoken Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, warning him not to speak to the foreign media or discuss religion online, after his website Uyghur Online alleged that authorities had sent armed forces to mosques in Xinjiang to monitor Muslims during Ramadan.
Ilham Tohti had founded Uyghur Online in 2006 as a moderate, intellectual website addressing social issues, but authorities shut it down in 2009.
A new version of the site, which reports Xinjiang news and discusses Uyghur social issues, reopened earlier this year. It is hosted overseas and blocked by censors in China.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.