HONG KONG—Legislators in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have passed a new "ethnic unity" law banning pro-independence speech and writings, following last year's deadly ethnic violence between minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
The "Law on Education for Ethnic Unity in Xinjiang" was voted into law by regional legislators last week, and will take effect from Feb. 1.
"It rules that all people and organizations are banned from promulgating speech detrimental to ethnic unity, and from gathering, providing, producing, and spreading information to that effect," Eligen Imibakhi, chairman of the Standing Committee of the Xinjiang Regional People's Congress, was quoted by official media as saying.
The law spells out that it is an obligation for all citizens to work towards national unity and against secession, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"Anyone who endangers ethnic unity or provokes secession will face penalties and prosecution," the agency said.
The law follows hard on the heels of the "Information Promotion Bill," which outlaws use of the Internet in Xinjiang in any way that "undermines national unity, incites ethnic separatism, or harms social stability."
Officials say that terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists used the Internet, telephones, and mobile text messages to spread rumors and hatred during the ethnic violence which killed at least 197 people, sparking one of the most comprehensive Internet shutdowns ever reported.
While authorities announced that a limited Internet service would resume, bloggers in Xinjiang said they are still unable to get online using normal technical procedures.
Instead, Xinjiang's 20 million residents, who have been cut off from Internet and international phone services since deadly ethnic rioting six months ago, may now access two state-run Web sites: those published by the Xinhua news agency and the Communist Party newspaper, The People's Daily.
Phone, text, and email links remain largely blocked.
The ethnic unity law also comes into effect as the Chinese government sets up an anti-terrorism information coordination office, known informally as the "July 5th Office," aimed at curbing separatist activities and sentiment in five politically sensitive regions.
According to a former Chinese intelligence officer, the office's brief will be to counteract Xinjiang separatists, Tibetan independence activists, supporters of formal independence for Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, and overseas democracy activists.
"This office will avoid ministries and commissions," said U.S.-based former intelligence officer Li Fengzhi.
"Its leader won't have a particularly high rank, or they may hold another office simultaneously."
"But they will have to have enough clout to propel the ministries into action."
He said the office would have to collaborate with the military, police, foreign affairs ministry, and propaganda department.
"It will group all the head honchos together," he said.
"I think that they will mostly be focusing on protecting China's territorial integrity using anti-terrorism as an excuse."
He said that good connections already exist between China's intelligence gathering and counterespionage agencies, and that the purpose of the office was unlikely to be purely to collate intelligence reports.
"I think that there's much more of a sense that they will actually coordinate things involved here," Li said.
Clashes first erupted between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs on July 5.
Twelve people have since been sentenced to death in connection with the violence, which was the worst the country has experienced in decades.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has documented the disappearances of 43 men and boys in the Xinjiang region, but that the actual number of disappearances is probably far higher.
Official media say police have detained more than 700 people in connection with the unrest.
Uyghurs, a distinct and mostly Muslim ethnic group, have long complained of religious, political, and cultural oppression under Chinese rule, and tensions have simmered there for years.
Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing lawyer, said the new law could help fight discrimination against Uyghurs but could also prove dangerously broad.
"I think this regulation could help control this situation...It might be a good thing. We knew from the Internet, [from] blogs, after the July 5 incident, that so many Chinese people had personal hatred for the Uyghurs," Jiang said.
But he added, "The regulation should have a very specific explanation about how it should be used, or it might be easily abused by law enforcement and Public Security Bureaus. So I have my own concerns—that’s why I don’t support it."
Dilshat Rashit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress, said he saw the new regulation as carefully timed to coincide with what China says will be a gradual easing of its communications blackout on the region.
"Now China is trying to re-establish Internet and phone communications," Rashit said.
"But before opening up, they’re trying to prevent Uyghur people from telling the truth about what happened on July 5. They want to use the ethnic unity law to accuse and punish Uyghurs who are trying to tell the truth."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan and Yang Jiadai, in Cantonese by Hai Nan, and in Uyghur by Jilil Musha. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and translated for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.