Ekpar Asat, founder of one of the most popular Uyghur-language websites, started his career as many tech entrepreneurs do: In 2007, he turned his college project into a successful news site and forum called Bagdax.
On the wall of his office were pictures of his role models: Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama, and Jack Ma. As a minor celebrity in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, Asat, also known as Mr. Bagdax, was invited to provincial government events and to the offices of China’s tech giants. Even if the platform had to adhere to China’s strict censorship rules—at one point, four police officers were tasked with monitoring it—its base quickly grew to over 100,000 users.
In early 2016, however, Asat was swept up in a mass detention campaign, alongside a reported 1 million members of Uyghur and other Turkic minorities, after returning from an entrepreneur leadership program organized by the US State Department.
Within a year, Bagdax and other popular Uyghur websites—such as Misranim, Bozqir, and Ana Tuprak—permanently stopped updating. And they weren’t the only ones. As Beijing’s crackdown in the Xinjiang region unfolded, the vast majority of independent Uyghur-run websites ceased to exist, according to local tech industry insiders and academics tracking the online Uyghur-language sphere.
“It’s like erasing the life work of thousands and thousands of people to build something—a future for their own society,” says Darren Byler, assistant professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and an author of several books on China’s treatment of Uyghurs.Many of the people behind the websites have also disappeared into China’s detention camp system. Developers, computer scientists, and IT experts—especially those working on Uyghur-language products—have been detained, according to members of the minority living abroad.The detentions are a part of China’s crackdown on the majority Muslim region, which has been rocked by several terrorist attacks in the past two decades. Human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of mass surveillance, forced labor, and wiping out the ethnic minority’s culture. Beijing claims that the camps are reeducation centers for vocational job training and countering extremism.
Ekpar Asat’s sister Rayhan Asat says that the shutdown can be seen as an attack against Uyghur language and culture and that the Chinese government’s repression has often targeted the region’s best and brightest.“Why would an eminent tech entrepreneur need to be reeducated? What kind of skills does he need?” she says. The Public Security Bureau of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, did not respond to phone calls.
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A major Central Asian Silk Road outpost in the past, Urumqi is no Silicon Valley. Still, by 2014 a small cluster of tech companies was beginning to form just south of its Grand Bazaar. But the blossoming was short-lived, and in 2016 repression was in full swing. “Our region literally became a prison without walls,” says Abdurrahim Devlet, founder of Bilkan, the company behind 30 apps, a line of hardware, and the first online Uyghur bookstore. Devlet decided to leave Xinjiang after a wave of arrests targeting individuals, including Bilkan’s manager, who was later sentenced to 25 years in prison. After shuttering his company, Devlet is now living in Turkey and working on a doctorate in history.
Making a living as a programmer also became hard, says a former Bilkan developer, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his family’s safety. In 2016, the government started requiring that websites establish Communist Party branches or be supervised by a party member, making it difficult to avoid blacklisting.
Authorities have also expanded the list of blocked websites from Google and other Western social media platforms to GitHub and Stack Overflow, popular developer tool platforms that remain available to coders in the rest of China.Targeting of the Uyghur IT sector, especially website owners, keeps happening because these individuals are influential in society, says Abduweli Ayup, a language activist who has been keeping a tally of Xinjiang intellectuals who have disappeared into the camp system, a list containing names of over a dozen people working in the technology sector. “They are the leading force in the economy—and after that leading force disappears, people become poor,” Ayup says.
Xinjiang’s digital erasure is only the most recent blow to its online sphere. In 2009, after riots exploded in Urumqi, China hit back with an internet shutdown and a wave of arrests of bloggers and webmasters. Advocacy organization Uyghur Human Rights Project estimates that over 80 percent of Uyghur websites did not return after the shutdown. But even though the region was plagued by small-scale periodic internet blackouts, the Uyghur internet had grown vibrant. And for the Uyghur community, those websites were a place for both rediscovering Islamic religious practices and having conversations about hot-button issues such as homophobia, trans issues, and sexism. More importantly, the internet helped Uyghurs create an image of themselves different from the one offered by Chinese state media, says Rebecca Clothey, associate professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. “An online space in which they can talk about issues that are relevant to them gives them the ability to have a way of thinking about themselves as a unified mass,” she says. “Without that, they’re scattered.”
Uyghurs in Xinjiang now use domestic platforms and apps made by China’s tech giants. Although WeChat still hosts Uyghur-language accounts, the platform is known for its censorship system.
Some Uyghurs, however, have found tiny cracks in the wall through which they communicate and express themselves. People hold up signs with messages during video calls, out of fear that their conversations may be monitored. Young people are switching their conversations to gaming apps.
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On China’s version of TikTok, ByteDance-owned Douyin, Uyghurs have been stealthily filming scenes from Xinjiang that differ from state propaganda videos showing smiling dancers in traditional robes. Some have filmed themselves crying over pictures of their loved ones. Others have captured orphanages with children of detained Uyghurs or people being loaded onto buses, a possible reference to forced labor. The clips are stripped of information, leaving conclusions to the viewers.
Recently, Chinese authorities have been rolling back some controls over the Uyghur language, says Byler. In late 2019, Beijing announced that people held in vocational training centers in China had all “graduated,” while scaling back some of the more visible signs of its high-tech police state.
Uyghurs abroad, however, say that many of their friends and relatives are still in camps or have received arbitrary prison sentences. Ekpar Asat was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination. And although some parts of the Uyghur internet are archived for future digital archaeology, much of it has simply vanished forever. “That’s just been eliminated overnight, and there’s not much of a way of recovering that information,” says Byler.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of WIRED UK magazine.