The Long Reach of Chinese Censorship

Julie Millsap is the communications manager for Campaign for Uyghurs, a non-profit organization that advocates for the human rights and democratic freedoms of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples oppressed by the Chinese regime. She lived in China for many years working in education, and specializes in education policies of the People’s Republic of China. She currently lives in the United States with her husband and son.

I spent the last ten years living in one of China’s so-called “autonomous regions.” In my experience, labeling these regions as such had little to do with autonomy and everything to do with the local governments being able to pull in more money from tourism. This exploitive tourism featured costumed dancers in tightly controlled environments with thematic scenery and had little to do with anything that might be culturally controversial; it was all cultural appropriation on a horrifying scale.

My husband is a Chinese citizen, and we fled the country in February after watching several alarming developments, or as I should rather say, deteriorations, regarding human rights. The anti-foreign sentiment, rampant authoritarianism, changing educational policies, and continuing suppression of non-Han Chinese ethnic groups was disturbing on a level I cannot accurately describe. China has become a rogue state with absolutely no fear of international retribution. It wasn’t entirely shocking to find ourselves leaving under such circumstances; in fact, what I found truly shocking was how far the Chinese government’s censorship had extended. Upon returning to the United States, I accepted a position working with Campaign for Uyghurs, a D.C.-based NGO that advocates for the human rights and democratic freedoms of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples oppressed by the Chinese government. It was through this work that I had my eyes opened to just how complicit Twitter, Zoom, and other Western apps and social media outlets are in the massive disinformation war being waged by the Chinese government.

Our organization had previously identified the need to reach the Mandarin-speaking world with the truth of what the Chinese government is doing, but of course, the great firewall of China prevents this, and the frequent arrests and suppression of activists in China makes this task more daunting, however, many Chinese people still use VPNs to access sites blocked by the Chinese government.

Campaign for Uyghurs started a Chinese-language Twitter account and had just reached 50 followers when, for no apparent reason, it was suspended. Frequent queries over this to Twitter went unanswered. Our more well-established, extremely active Turkish language account with thousands of followers was also suspended. In both cases, there was no violation of the account rules, and it appeared that the rumors about the Chinese Communist Party meddling in the operations of the platform were indeed true.

While it isn’t the first time Twitter has been criticized for allowing such interferences, this particular incident was particularly disturbing in that an account with such a small following could be considered so threatening to the Chinese government that Twitter complied in removing it. To this date, the accounts have yet to be reinstated, and repeated inquiries have gone unanswered. I have watched my own country’s citizens use their voices to cry out for the black community, rail against Trump and talk about censoring hate speech, while concurrently turning a blind eye towards the extensive reach of Chinese propaganda via Western social media. While China completely denies the privilege of free speech for the people within its own borders, they continue to use these banned social media platforms to spread their hateful propaganda overseas. 

And this strategy is working.

While citizens of Western democracies dissect their own societal issues, they run the risk of ignoring the larger, all-consuming danger that has now crept across the globe. Though Twitter has made statements resolving to handle state-run interference, it appears they have done little to address the legitimate accounts taken down in response to the complaints of pro-Beijing users, or possibly, board members. Chinese money talks, but it must not drown out the voices of the free, and more importantly, the voices of those individuals with a conscience. I have lived under the Chinese regime, I have struggled under their self-proclaimed “paradise,” and I want no further part of it for myself, nor would I wish its tyranny on any part of the rest of the vulnerable world.

Featured image by Mike MacKenzie – CC BY 2.0