Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are holding 11 members of mostly Muslim ethnic minority groups on suspicion of promoting "terrorism, religious extremism and ethnic divisions" using online platforms.
Since August, police in the region have investigated 15 cases of "disseminating illegal information online," the Xinjiang Internet Information Office said at the weekend.
Nine of the "suspects" were Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim Uyghurs, one a non-Uyghur Hui Muslim and one an ethnic Kazakh citizen of China, many of whom are also Muslims.
They are accused of "using text messages, pictures, audio and video to promote, store and disseminate terrorist, religious extremist, ethnically divisive content and fake news," the statement said.
Beijing blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in China in recent years, but critics say the government has exaggerated the threat from the ethnic group, and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
The government has detained large numbers of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities simply for posting religious videos not approved by officials, Qurans, prayer mats and traditional clothing, all of which have been described as evidence of "extremism" by Chinese police in recent months.
Among the detainees were a 50-year-old resident of Aksu, a 32-year-old resident of Bozhou, a resident of Urumqi and a resident of Kashgar, all Uyghurs accused of possessing and disseminating "terrorist" videos, the Internet Information Office said.
'Terrorist videos' meaning unclear
Meanwhile, an ethnic Kazakh from Bozhou and a 22-year-old Hui Muslim stand accused of disseminating "religious extremist propaganda," it said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Xinjiang regional government's internet reporting hotline declined to give details about what was meant by "terrorist videos" in the statement.
"Illegal and substandard content includes the online dissemination of undesirable video and religious extremism, as well as rumor-mongering of a political nature, etc," the employee said.
Asked for further details, the employee said: "We just receive the tip-offs here, but it's up to the police to define whether or not the content is illegal or against regulations."
Thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are being held in re-education camps across Xinjiang without contact with their families under a policy designed to counter "extremism," local officials have told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The camps are now formally referred to as “Professional Education Schools,” after being called “Socialism Training Schools” and other names since their early 2017 inception as “Counter-extremism Training Schools,” the official said.
The camps are in operation throughout Xinjiang and contain detainees from the Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh communities – all Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities in China – under policies introduced by hardline Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, sources have said.
Officials have described the facilities as closed schools, because authorities keep internees detained day and night, subjecting them to political and ideological "re-education" for an indefinite period.
Ilshat Hassan, President of Uyghur American Association said the latest arrest showed that "China is further intensifying the suppression of the peaceful Uyghur people after the 19th Congress."
"Some Uyghurs had hopes of change after the CCP Congress but that was only wishful thinking. The reality is the situation is only getting worse,” he told RFA's Uyghur Service, referring to last month's five-yearly Communist Party congress.
Pressure on Kazakhs
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Chinese government to free the thousands of people placed in Xinjiang camps
since April 2017 and close them down.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress group, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party has already succeeded in controlling what its citizens see online, and is targeting ethnic minorities as part of a systematic program of oppression.
"This so-called charge of disseminating illegal content is all about the Chinese government's fear that Uyghurs will start expressing their anger and discontent online," Raxit said.
"This tightening of online monitoring in the region is, in reality, another way to prevent Uyghurs getting a hold of information outside the government's controlled monopoly," he said.
"I worry that this will lead to even more people being detained by the local authorities."
Meanwhile, the Xinjiang authorities are continuing to put pressure on ethnic Kazakhs with relatives across the border in Kazakhstan, local sources said.
Sources in Urumqi said an elderly Kazakh woman was recently forced to sign a document declaring "an end to the maternal relationship with my son" and to cancel her grown son's household registration document linked to his family home, to enable him to get a visa to come home and visit her after he obtained Kazakhstan citizenship.
New rules introduced since August have made it almost impossible for naturalized citizens of Kazakhstan who were once holders of Chinese passports to get a visa to come and visit relatives.
Visa applications require proof that the household registration, or "hukou", back in China has been canceled before a former Chinese citizen may return to the country, sources said.
"The police made a mother write this declaration of the ending of maternal relations with her son," an Urumqi-based Kazakh said. "Otherwise, they would have charged him with the crime of holding dual nationality, which would have meant he couldn't come back to China."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Alim Seytoff for the Uyghur Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.