Tea Leaf Nation
An Internet Where Nobody Says Anything
Ilham Tohti's unjust fate says much about the Chinese Communist Party's dark vision for the web's future.
Here is what a court in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region, concludes Ilham Tohti, a balding, thick-set, 44-year-old professor, did: "Using ‘Uighur Online’ as a platform, and taking advantage of his role as a university professor," Tohti "spread separatist notions" and "bewitched and coerced" seven of his students to join into an eight-person, web-powered splittist clique with international reach. Here is what Tohti, by all appearances, actually did: He created and maintained a Chinese-language website, called Uighur Online, that provided a bridge between China’s Han majority and its Uighur minority, a Turkic-language-speaking, predominantly Muslim group that mostly lives in Xinjiang and has an uneasy history of coexistence with the growing number of Han who live among them, one marred by violent clashes. Like all Chinese-language websites, Uighur Online could be read by anyone around the world with an Internet connection and Chinese-language proficiency. It acted as a kind of information hub with investigative reports, opinion pieces, and content aggregated from overseas. Elliot Sperling, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, who describes himself as a friend of Tohti’s, depicts the now-defunct site — shut down in June 2008, subsequently moved to U.S. servers, now unavailable once again — as "a path for the other side to think about what was going on." Uighur Online, Sperling told me, "was providing the raw material for dialogue, unmediated on the Internet. He was trying to inform people" so they knew "what Uighurs feel."
Tohti was convicted on Sept. 23 of the (vaguely defined) crime of "separatism," for which he was sentenced to life in prison and stripped of all his assets. That language obscures the grisly nature of the outcome: Tohti is likely to suffer decades of indignities both large and small and possible torture, while his wife, Guzelnur, currently deprived of the family savings, will effectively be a single mother of two and may have to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers. The verdict came from an intermediate court in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, although it’s certain that central authorities in Beijing made the final call. The case presented against Tohti, made available in a Sept. 24 Chinese-language précis via state news agency Xinhua, rested on a sorry mash-up of stray quotes, innuendo, and conclusory reasoning — what frankly looks more like first-draft opposition research for an upcoming Senate campaign than the foundation of a life-ruining legal verdict.
Even with years to prepare, the immense resources of the Chinese police, judicial, and intelligence apparatuses behind them, and a vast trove of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Uighur Online articles from which to draw — what longtime Xinjiang researcher Nicholas Bequelin called a "godsend" for authorities looking for "anything critical of ethnic policies" — prosecutors were only able to dredge up the tiniest of slivers. One piece of evidence, such as it is, accuses Tohti of juicing a headline by calling a government workshop on anti-separatism a "brainwashing" exercise. Another complains Tohti posted a guest author’s survey without fact-checking, which the court reasons would require Tohti’s reconducting the survey himself. Yet another accusation, leveled without supporting evidence, finds Tohti’s site guilty of "hype."
In other words, Tohti was actually guilty of running what readers around the world would instantly recognize as a blog. To be more precise, it was what Internet scholars like Ethan Zuckerman call a "bridge blog," one devoted, in the words of Zuckerman, to "building connections between people from different cultures via … online work." Much in this spirit, Tohti’s defense team, which included prominent rights lawyer Li Fangping, averred that his site’s purpose was "to eliminate interethnic misunderstanding and spur communication." Indiana University, Bloomington, professor of Central Eurasian studies Gardner Bovingdon, a reader of the site before its shutdown, described it as "mild, moderate critique, and carefully analytical." Foreign Policy analyzed cached versions of several of the articles cited in Tohti’s evidentiary record; none of them contains any call to separatist action. The closest any article arguably comes is a reflection on Uighur-Han riots in the southern city of Shaoguan in June 2013, penned by someone named Yarkant Irpan, which argues that "racial animus" lay behind the violence, and a survey finding that the vast majority of Uighurs didn’t like the Han Chinese in Xinjiang and felt the Han there didn’t trust them back. Tohti has himself explicitly disavowed separatism on multiple occasions.
Tohti’s sentencing shows that the Chinese government is not in fact interested in communication between Uighurs and Han, says Bequelin. "A lot of it is just payback," Bequelin told me. Tohti "has been a pain in the neck, especially of the Xinjiang authorities," who clearly would rather not hear that their policies are failing to smooth relations between Uighurs and Han. "And now it’s payback time."
It’s hard not to feel devastated by Tohti’s treatment, and not just because the sentencing of what Bovingdon calls "the best known Uighur intellectual of his generation" scorches the middle ground that Tohti had sought to occupy in Han-Uighur relations. It’s also because China’s government is showing itself to be fundamentally opposed to one of the major functions of the modern Internet, one enabled (and virtually necessitated) by its architecture: connecting people. As Sperling says, Tohti’s conviction "cuts off the path for the other side to think about what was going on."
To be clear, linking people across borders and boundaries is not itself a crime in China. But that behavior has been effectively criminalized when it suits the government. Plotting to "internationalize the Uighur question" is listed among the findings against Tohti and was among the oral arguments prosecutors offered during his two-day hearing. Sperling, who studies Tibet, says that "one of the things the Communist Party accuses Tibetan ‘separatists’ of is ‘internationalizing’ the issue." But he asks, "So what? What that means is just getting attention from the international community, which is what you can do with the Internet."
It’s also an impossibly slippery slope, since it’s quite difficult to publish something on the Internet that isn’t, in some fashion, international. While the Great Firewall (which the government has never acknowledged) largely blocks some foreign content, like Facebook and Twitter, from coming into China, it does nothing to stop anyone proficient in Chinese from reading mainland websites. If the ability of a foreign netizen to gain access to online content is the relevant yardstick, then the municipal government of the small industrial city of Fuling, where I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, is also guilty of internationalizing recent complaints about parking at its northern railway station because it has published them on the World Wide Web. The Tohti verdict signals that Chinese authorities want the Great Firewall, an invisible but immensely ugly thing, to work in both directions.
Sharon Hom, the executive director of New York-based NGO Human Rights in China, told me that Tohti’s treatment is "totally consistent with the tight new regulations over the Internet space," which includes rules criminalizing rumors on the Twitter-like Weibo and mandating the preregistration of any account sharing political opinions on social app WeChat. China has frequently invoked vague national security concerns for its increasingly tight hold on online speech. Just on Wednesday, Sept. 24, at the U.N. General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech calling for "new thinking" in counterterrorism in which he explicitly mentioned counterterrorism on the Internet.
The change in China’s Internet over the past several years is hard for close observers to miss. In December 2011, I co-founded a website, Tea Leaf Nation, dedicated to curating and translating online Chinese voices for an English-speaking audience. (It was acquired in September 2013 by FP and is now a channel on FP‘s site.) The rise of platforms like Weibo and WeChat have presented an immense opportunity for everyday Chinese to be heard and understood in global discourse in a way unimaginable even 10 years ago. But the initial vision of the site — to pull from conversations Chinese writers thought were for internal consumption, and to rely on dozens of young, idealistic Americans and Chinese to make it happen — has been buffeted by wave after wave of crackdown within China’s cyberspace, making it hard to find valuable stories among the noise that now remains.
In widely cited September remarks at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, Chinese Internet czar Lu Wei emphasized that China’s Internet was "multilateral, democratic, and transparent." But he also said China desired an Internet in which "differences were shelved," emphasizing that even if "the transmission of information has no boundaries, Internet regulation has borders." Lu sketched his vision of an Internet that would become an "Alibaba treasure trove" — a reference to the massive online shopping outfit that just enjoyed the largest IPO on a U.S. stock exchange, ever — and not a "Pandora’s box." Lu said that the aims of Chinese Internet law were the safeguarding of national interests first, and the vouchsafing of consumer interests second. He listed nothing else.
Some Chinese commenters seem to understand the gravity of the Tohti verdict. On mobile message app WeChat, a Chinese reporter named Wang Qian (no relation to Wang Yi) asked how "Hans can get better" in their relations with Uighurs "when this moderate intellectual dedicated to helping two ethnicities communicate, to eliminate conflicts, can be convicted for uttering a few sentences?" Wang concluded: "This isn’t the future we want, and it shouldn’t be the future of the next generation." On the same platform, Huang Zhangjin, editor of a popular account that covers politics, wrote: "I really want to tell my future children, ‘It was a cruel age, one where I praised freedom and prayed for the forgiveness and understanding of those who had fallen.’" But, Huang added, "I was unable to defeat my fear. I’ve never written an article introducing Ilham [Tohti] and defending him publicly." That understates Huang’s courage. He and Wang must be aware that private WeChat discussions are sometimes monitored by government authorities. In fact, the evidence marshaled against Tohti includes a WeChat message Tohti sent to his friends.
And that’s precisely the problem with the Chinese government’s conception of the Internet. As the world boils and shakes with new forms of conflict and anger, enlightened websites like Global Voices, Fair Observer, and (once upon a time) Tohti’s own Uighur Online connect disparate populations and give hope for a more unified, more civil, global discourse. But the Chinese government has shown it will be most content with an Internet that challenges nothing, not even gently. Czar Lu and his colleagues’ version of the Internet will give government media a megaphone (and a crowbar) into every phone, tablet, smartwatch, and desktop in China. That’s not to say it won’t also be a massive engine for wealth, and maybe even innovation. Price signals will transmit with perfect clarity: E-commerce will thrive as buyers and sellers connect in microseconds, as multiplayer games grow ever more massive and lucrative, as virtual karaoke halls allow lonely men to feel the simulacrum of a relationship, and as social media overflows with harmless celebrity gossip and promotions calculated to instill consumer lust in a rising Chinese middle class finally beginning to search for the meaning behind their prosperity. Above all that din, nobody will hear each other at all.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Shujie Leng, and Lotus Yuen contributed research.