China Cuts Mobile Service of Xinjiang Residents Evading Internet FiltersNovember 23, 2015
The Chinese government is shutting down the mobile service of residents in Xinjiang who use software that lets them circumvent Internet filters, escalating an already aggressive electronic surveillance strategy in the country’s fractious western territory.
Starting last week, shortly after terrorist attacks in Paris, the local police began cutting the service of people who had downloaded foreign messaging services and other software, according to five people affected.
The people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns about retaliation from local security forces for speaking to foreign news media, all said their telecommunications provider had told them to go to a local police station to have service restored.
“Due to police notice, we will shut down your cellphone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law,” read a text message received by one of the people, who lives in the regional capital of Urumqi. “If you have any questions, please consult the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.”
The person said that when she called the police, she was told that the service suspensions were aimed at people who had not linked their identification to their account; used virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, to evade China’s system of Internet filters, known as the Great Firewall; or downloaded foreign messaging software, like WhatsApp or Telegram.
An official with the Urumqi municipal police said the bans affected all three of China’s state-run carriers but declined to comment further. Several complaints about the suspensions on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog, appeared to have been deleted by censors late last week.
It’s unclear how many of Xinjiang’s roughly 20 million people have been affected. One of the residents whose service was shut down said that when he went to the Urumqi police station, there was a line of about 20 people, including several foreigners, waiting to ask the police to restore their mobile phone accounts.
He said he used a virtual private network to get access to Instagram, and that at the police station, an officer “took away my ID card and cellphone for a few minutes and then gave them back to me.” He added, “They told me the reason for my suspension is that I ‘used software to jump the Great Firewall.’”
He said he was told that his phone service would be suspended for three days, and added that he would no longer use virtual private networks. “It is too troublesome,” he said. “I just have to give up my Instagram from now on.”
Others said it was less clear when their phone numbers might be restored. A man who lives in the town of Yining said the police there first checked his social media postings to see whether he had written anything delicate, then said they would report his case “for further examination.”