Some internet users in China are bypassing the country’s stringent censors to read an explosive New York Times story detailing the Communist Party’s hard-handed tactics against the Uighur Muslim minority, and paying tribute to an official who disobeyed party instructions.
Under President Xi Jinping, China is waging an unprecedented crackdown on the Uighurs, a mostly-Muslim ethnic group largely based in Xinjiang, in the country’s west. Many Uighurs call the region East Turkestan.
China considers Uighurs terrorists, and has repeatedly denied all allegations of human-rights abuse in Xinjiang. On Monday, it accused The Times of “smearing” its counterterrorism tactics in the region.
The country also tightly controls its internet by frequently blocking foreign websites, taking down social media posts, and banning certain keywords linked to criticism of the government.
The Times’ English-language website is among the dozens of foreign news sites banned in China.
However, it appears that many internet users in China managed to bypass the “Great Firewall” to read The Times’ story on the Uighurs, likely via a virtual private network (VPN).
Many people had posted veiled references to the story on Weibo, China’s largest social media platform.
They also posted tributes to Wang Yongzhi, an official in Xinjiang’s western Yarkand county, who was investigated and punished for privately complaining that the party’s detention targets did not align with its economic ambitions, and for secretly ordering the release of 7,000 Uighur prisoners.
“He refused … to round up everyone who should be rounded up,” The Times cited the internal documents on Wang as saying.
Another user wrote: “‘He refused.’ This is so desperate.” Another one shared a 2018 news article about Wang’s investigation, adding: “Respect for his courage and integrity.”
Another person even compared Wang to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who is credited for protecting Jewish workers in his factory during World War II, according to Quartz’s Jane Li, who first reported on the Weibo tributes to Wang.
Weibo, which often acts under the Chinese government’s orders, appears to have stopped users from talking about Wang.
The social platform hid comments, and forbade reposting a 2018 state-media article on Wang’s punishment on Sunday, noted Chenchen Zhang, a Chinese-born professor at Queen’s University Belfast.
The Weibo tributes — and the document leak to The Times — offer a glimpse of dissent in a heavily oppressed environment. Since becoming president in 2012, he has purged dozens of officials in a nationwide “anti-corruption drive.”
The Times didn’t identify the leaker, but said he or she was a “member of the Chinese political establishment.”
They had, through the leak, “expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”