In late March, a mother of five, Sonam Tso, died after self-immolating in protest against Chinese rule outside a monastery in broad daylight. The horrific event took place in Dzoege County, within Chinese-controlled Tibet. It was the 145th known self-immolation in the restive region since 2009. The lack of free speech, expression, and legal recourse for Tibetans has driven individuals to burn themselves in a desperate, last-resort form of protest.
In the era of smartphones, instantaneous communication, and social media, you would’ve expected this news to quickly spread around the world. It didn't. In fact, it was not until early May that civil society groups outside of Tibet were able to verify what had happened to Sonam Tso and alert the world. That was more than six weeks after the event has taken place—an eternity in the digital age.
How could that be possible?
“China’s one-party authoritarian political system depends heavily on information control,” offered Yaqiu Wang, Northeast Asia correspondent with the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The Chinese government does not want people—inside and outside of China—to know what has happened, and is happening, in [Tibet or Xinjiang], as this would expose its troubled policies.”
While new technology is making it easier than ever to connect with others around the world, it’s also making governments more effective in keeping sensitive information within their borders. Nowhere is that power more apparent than in China, specifically the country's two outermost regions: Tibet and Xinjiang, also known as East Turkestan, the homeland of the Uighurs. The tools used by journalists and activists to keep track of what's happening around the world—Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Periscope—are mostly dark there, and getting verifiable information out is getting tougher.
Part of this is due to the growing capability of China's web control authorities, but part of it is something common in authoritarian states: self-censorship due to fear. As the web evolves, what's happening there may become the norm, a future internet where information no longer flows freely but only at the will of the state—a merging of offline and online norms.
Online and offline tactics
Traditional sources of information—local sources, whistleblowers, or even simple emails—have become increasingly inaccessible for journalists covering Tibet and Xinjiang. Both regions are closed off to journalists, except for heavily controlled, government-run trips. The few who do successfully report on the regions are finding that their sources are routinely intimidated, leaving few willing to speak openly to outsiders.
“A quarter of foreign journalists surveyed reported that their sources were harassed, detained, questioned or punished at least once for speaking to them,” Wang said. Some, like Tibetan entrepreneur Tashi Wangchuk, who advocates bilingual education in the area and spoke to a New York Times journalist, are thrown in jail, often under charges of inciting separatism, as was the case with Wangchuk.
This level of control also applies online. Both the internet and cellular networks often get shut down when there’s a disturbance. For example, internet access was restricted for 10 months across entirely of Xinjiang—an area larger than Texas—after protests erupted in 2009.
“Real-world norms catch up to the internet at some point, and that's happened in China.”
Today, however, tactics are evolving. Large-scale internet shutdowns are becoming more localized, as the ability to trace and monitor content and individual phones continues to improve. There is evidence that authorities can fingerprint data coming from smartphone apps from encrypted networks, and last year, Chinese hackers successfully traced content being shared via virtual private networks, or VPNs, by exploiting a server software vulnerability. Though people in China, in particular, use VPNs to work around the country’s so-called Great Firewall and avoid state censorship, their usage is becoming more precarious, particularly in restive regions.
When Sonam Tso self-immolated, this more sophisticated, mostly secret system went into action.
“There was a network disruption in that area,” confirmed Lobsang Gyatso Sither, digital security programs manager with the Tibet Action Institute. On the ground, Sither claims, Chinese police confiscated phones, threatened family members, and heavily censored content coming out of Dzoege County.
Many Tibetans and Uighurs do have smartphones, but for those living in restive regions, VPNs are risky. Even though they can mask what information you are accessing, they can’t hide the fact that you are using a VPN, and that alone can bring suspicion. Perhaps tellingly, the main apps used in the area are the Chinese Weibo and WeChat, both of which have servers located in China and are likely subject to extensive government data mining and monitoring. Recently, members of a Tibetan WeChat group were jailed for simply discussing the Dalai Lama, and posts about sensitive events are quickly removed, such as those sharing information about the recent demolition of the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.
“Chinese applications and social media platforms censor and monitor Tibetan content,” said Masashi Nishihata, a research manager at Citizen Lab, who works closely with Tibetan civil society. “Apps like WeChat must conform to Chinese law and regulations around content controls.”
A chilling effect
Numerous civil society groups are doing their best to keep information flowing and to protect those within China, but the odds are stacked against them. China’s technical resources far outweigh anything that non-governmental organizations can counter with.
“Clearly, China can put in tens of thousands of times more resources into [monitoring and surveillance] than civil society actors can for internet freedom, even those supported by the U.S. government,” said Greg Walton, a D.Phil candidate at Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security at the University of Oxford, who has monitored Chinese tactics for some time.
What's most worrisome is not the fact that China is monitoring everything, or that they may arrest anyone who shares sensitive content. It’s that the arrests and pressure that have already taken place is leading many Tibetans and Uighurs to self-censor—to avoid sharing anything that may raise suspicions. That’s the real reason Sonam Tso's self-immolation remained in the dark for so long.
“It's one the of the key elements of the Chinese censorship system, a proactive effort to induce a chilling effect, self-censorship.”
“It's one the of the key elements of the Chinese censorship system, a proactive effort to induce a chilling effect, self-censorship,” said Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham University and an expert in China and Chinese law. “This is much more important than the technical blocks.”
In other words, if people are too afraid to speak out on the streets, they won’t have the courage to do so online, either.
“All of these technologies exist within a human space, and social media...is just a reflection,” said Minzner. “Real-world norms catch up to the internet at some point, and that's happened in China.”
The crackdown seen in Tibet and Xinjiang is being extended to the rest of China. In July, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) established new rules that prohibit websites from publishing unverified news. The move was seen as an attempt to slow the spread of information on social media, especially on Weibo and WeChat. That followed new regulations announced in June that require developers in Apple’s App Store to retain records of user activity for 60 days, data that could then be accessed by the state. But it's not just China. Thailand, Cambodia, and Turkey have all arrested citizens for content posted on Facebook. There is no sign that that trend is slowing.
The next time a Tibetan protests publicly, or the next time someone tragically self-immolates like Sonam Tso, perhaps it will take longer than seven weeks for the information to reach global audiences. Or, if the Chinese authorities have their way, it might never get out.
In our digital world, if something isn't being shared or read on social media, it’s as if it never happened at all.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Xinjiang. It is northwest China. We've also clarified Greg Walton's title. He is a D.Phil candidate at Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security at the University of Oxford.
This article has also been updated for clarity.