Authorities in Qorghas county in China’s ethnically troubled Xinjiang region have detained five Uyghur youths, two of them for spreading online rumors about a bomb threat and the others for sharing religious pamphlets, an overseas rights group said Thursday.
“Last week, they arrested five youths. Authorities accused them of using the Internet to incite separatism and spreading information harmful to national security and stability,” Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said.
Two of the five were detained after retweeting a post reporting a false alarm about bombs in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), a city neighboring Qorghas county on the western edge of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The retweet appeared to be a local variant of a post that had circulated on microblogs across China.
“Of the five Uyghurs arrested, two of them were arrested by officers from Qorghas [in Chinese, Huocheng] county’s public security bureau and from the local police station. They were around 20 years old,” Dilxat Raxit said.
“Authorities accused them of spreading a tweet that said, ‘under the Ili River Bridge there are two bombs,’” he said.
Police confirmed the detentions related to the bomb tweet, but further information about the three detained for sharing religious pamphlets was unknown.
Beijing considers Xinjiang a terrorism hotspot and fears “separatism” among Muslim Uyghurs, an ethnic minority in China, who complain of unfair policies in the region.
Authorities in Beijing are also increasingly concerned about the speed with which China's popular microblogs can spread information not controlled by official media.
An announcement on Qorghas county police’s Sina microblog said that on March 4, police had arrested two people, identified in Chinese as Amou and Yemou, for tweeting rumors about a bomb in Ghulja.
It said tweets about bombs under the Ili River Bridge had begun appearing on the Tencent microblog on March 3, reaching over a thousand retweets by the next day. Police conducted an investigation and caught the two.
Qorghas county and Ili prefecture police stations contacted by telephone confirmed that some people had been detained for “spreading rumors” online, but would not specify how many.
“There is no bomb plot on the Ili River Bridge. Somebody is intentionally stirring up trouble by rumor-mongering, and we have detained those who spread the rumors. If you report this [rumor], you’ll be in trouble too,” an officer on duty at the Ili prefecture police bureau told RFA.
No incident involving a bomb had occurred in Ghulja, a police officer at the Ili River Bridge district police station told RFA.
The bomb rumor that the two youths are suspected of spreading appears to be a Ghulja variant of similar tweets that have circulated on China’s microblogs for over a year.
An Internet search for the tweet returned similar posts referring to a dozen different cities in China, some from as far back as 2010.
A Sina microblog user surnamed Zhang said he had seen similar posts with different cities named as the location of the bomb.
“I saw this microblog post many days ago. It’s one that circulated on the Internet, with just the location switched up. The post I saw before said Chengdu.”
“If a Han Chinese person had posted this, at the most he would have been reprimanded by having to ‘drink tea’ with the police,” he said, using a euphemism for informal police questioning.
“But if someone of their [Uyghur] ethnicity were involved, it might be raised to [the level of] ‘terror,’” he said.
Microblog use has exploded in China in recent years, to hundreds of millions of users, and Beijing has struggled to figure out how to monitor them.
In December, several Chinese cities began requiring microblog users to register with their real names before posting comments online. Microblog websites have also agreed to set up "rumor-crushing teams" to eliminate false information.
In 2009, after ethnic violence broke out in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, authorities cut off Internet access in the entire region for 10 months. Several Uyghur web managers and journalists were jailed.
Reported by Guljekre Keyoum for RFA’s Uyghur service and Qiao Long for the Cantonese service. Translated by Rachel Vandenbrink and Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.