Police in the Chinese region of Xinjiang are shutting down mobile phone service for people using foreign messaging apps. and software that could give them access to banned websites, according to five residents who spoke with the New York Times.
The citizens spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of backlash from local police officials.
“Due to police notice, we will shut down your cell phone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law,” read a text message received by one of the residents. “If you have any questions, please consult the cyber police affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.”
After visiting her local police station, the resident said she was told the measure was aimed at people who had downloaded foreign messaging software such as WhatsApp, failed to link their identifications to their phone accounts, or used virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent China’s Internet-censoring system known as the Great Firewall.
Another resident said he was targeted after using a VPN to access Instagram. He said police took his phone and ID before returning them to him and notifying him that his service will be suspended for three days. The man said he would cease using VPNs and give up his Instagram account.
“It’s too troublesome,” he said.
It’s not clear how many residents in Xingjian are affected by the policy, but one told the Times that he saw a line of about 20 people waiting to speak to “cyber police” about their suspended service when he visited his local police station.
An official with municipal police of the regional capital Urumqi said the bans affect all three of China’s state-run carriers. He declined to comment further.
The shutdown was launched shortly after the Paris attacks. Xingjian is home to a large population of ethnic Muslim Uighurs.
The measure also comes as governments including ones in the West grapple with ways to combat terrorism while protecting privacy and civil rights. Terrorists using messaging apps. to conceal their communications from law enforcement is of particular concern.
In China, however, leadership regularly censors online communications. Its policies have been becoming increasingly stricter and more widespread under China’s “Internet Czar” Lu Wei, who earned the role in 2013.
In 2009, China shut down the Internet in all of Xingjian following clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese.
“Xinjiang is really the frontier for Internet surveillance in China because of the terrorism issue and the risk of violence,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director for Amnesty International, during an interview with the Times.
The government often voices that religious extremism in Xinjiang is fueled on the Internet. Bequelin, however, says people in the region also are radicalized by the lack of rights provided to Uighurs.
In recent weeks, China has vowed to crush homegrown terrorism and step-up its role against foreign threats. Last week, China confirmed the death of Fan Jinghui who was reportedly held hostage and executed by ISIS. China also lost at least three citizens during the recent attack at a hotel in Mali, which was also reportedly led by an Islamist extremist group.