China has suspended cellphone service for Xinjiang residents attempting to evade the country’s Great Firewall, reinforcing the government’s grasp on all things digital.
Following reports that users of virtual private networks (VPNs) and certain mobile apps were having their cellphone service shut down, an official with the municipal police in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, confirmed that all three of China’s state-run carriers had began implementing blackouts, The New York Times reported Monday.
Five people affected by the ban told the newspaper that they received messages on their cellphones after installing either VPN software or certain foreign messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Telegram.
“Due to police notice, we will shut down your cellphone number within the next two hours in accordance with the law,” read a message received by a resident of Urumqi, a city of nearly 2 million, The Times reported. “If you have any questions, please consult the cyberpolice affiliated with the police station in your vicinity as soon as possible.”
VPNs allow users to route their web traffic through an encrypted tunnel which in turn makes Internet activity difficult to monitor and censor; both WhatsApp and Telegram boast of offering customers secure platforms for communication that can’t easily be intercepted either.
Chinese law dictates some of the world’s strictest digital censorship policies, and applications that enable access to the West and news beyond the grasp of Beijing’s control are largely blocked.
“If you download VPN software to your phone, it will switch off immediately and then you have to go to the police and apply to have it unlocked,” an anonymous source told Radio Free Asia last week.
“It has to do with the terrorist attacks, and it’s mainly information [going in and out of] Xinjiang; there’s no directive in force in other locations for the time being,” the source said.
The suspensions in cell service began occurring shortly after Muslim extremists waged a series of attacks in Paris on November 13. Authorities in the United States, U.K. and elsewhere have since suggested that the perpetrators may have plotted the assaults in secrecy using apps that enable encrypted communication, and Telegram has subsequently suspended several networks reportedly used by the Islamic State terror group.
One of the users whose service was suspended told The Times he went to the local police station, as instructed, where he explained that he had been using a VPN to access Instagram.
An officer “took away my ID card and cellphone for a few minutes and then gave them back to me,” the user said. “They told me the reason for my suspension is that I ‘used software to jump the Great Firewall.’
“I just have to give up my Instagram from now on,” he added.
The Xinjiang autonomous territory is home to an estimated 10 million Muslim Uyghurs. Previously, Internet access for the entire area was shut down after the group began clashing with the Han Chinese in 2009.