Thursday, 22 August 2019


BEIJING—TikTok has become one of China’s most globally successful mobile apps by embracing silly, comedic short video clips.
Now, Uighur Muslims from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region are using a domestic version of the app to post haunting videos that appear to memorialize missing family members and draw attention to Beijing’s mass-internment campaign.
In recent days, China’s Uighurs have posted dozens of videos that show them crying silently in front of family portraits. Such public expressions of grief have been rare in Xinjiang, where heavy censorship has prevented little aside from official propaganda from trickling out.
Posted on Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of TikTok, the videos’ ambiguity appears to have helped them slip past censors at first, but many have since been deleted, though activists elsewhere have spread them by sharing them on other media. There is no indication of what happened to the people pictured in the family portraits.


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The parent company of Douyin and TikTok, Beijing-based Bytedance Inc., didn’t respond to a request for comment. Bytedance is now one of the world’s most valuable startups, with an estimated $75 billion valuation.
Many of the accounts that had uploaded the videos listed Xinjiang as their location, including from the prefectures of Kashgar, Aksu and Kizilsu. While some of the accounts remained active on Wednesday, the vast majority had been deleted or disabled by Thursday. Of the accounts that remained active, other videos of their daily lives remain, but the videos with the pictures of family members in the background are no longer there.

From the Archives

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First Detention, Now Demolition: China Remakes Its Muslim Region
First Detention, Now Demolition: China Remakes Its Muslim Region
After locking up as many as a million people in camps in Xinjiang, Chinese authorities are destroying Uighur neighborhoods and purging the region's culture. They say they’re fighting terrorism. Their aim: to engineer a society loyal to Beijing. Photo illustration: Sharon Shi. Video: Clément Bürge (Originally published March 20, 2019)
Like other social-media platforms operating in China, Douyin is required by law to delete any content that expresses political dissent. Online users have become skilled at developing new methods to circumvent censorship—employing puns, symbols and, in this case, silent clips on social-media apps. Even so, censors are usually close behind.
Chinese social media platforms that don’t meet censorship requirements risk financial penalties and shutdown. Beijing in recent years has slapped fines on juggernauts like Tencent Holdings Ltd., Baidu Inc. and Weibo Corp.
Chinese authorities haven’t raised issue with Bytedance’s handling of the recent Xinjiang videos, but the company will face growing content-filtering expenses as growing scale draws it under heavier regulatory scrutiny. Historically, few social media providers have managed to succeed in both the U.S. market, where consumers value free speech, and in China, where strict political censorship is mandatory.
To accommodate the different audiences, Bytedance operates Douyin and TikTok separately. Unlike the heavily censored Douyin, users of the global app TikTok aren’t subject to Chinese censorship, though TikTok has come under attack in various countries for allowing sexually suggestive clips and videos promoting suicide to circulate widely.
The tearful videos challenge Beijing’s claims about Xinjiang. Western scholars estimate more than 1 million Turkic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang in the past few years. Xinjiang officials say they aren’t kept in detention camps but in vocational schools, which rehabilitate extremists and petty criminals, and that students attend voluntarily.
Authorities said in July that a majority of those in the centers had returned home—a claim that hasn’t been independently verified. Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s governor and No. 2 official, said at the time that more than 90% of those released had found jobs that they like, but he provided no evidence. Abduweli Ayup, a Norway-based linguist originally from Xinjiang, said the videos appear to be an effort by some Uighurs to refute the claims.
“I think this is the answer from the people,” said Mr. Ayup. “They say, ‘If they are 90%, then where are my brothers and sisters and relatives?’”
Much about conditions in Xinjiang remains unknown due to an official clampdown on information and restrictions on travel to the region. While some overseas Uighurs say family members have been released this year, others can’t confirm whether loved ones are alive or dead.
A training center believed to be a re-education camp north of Kashgar in the Xinjiang region.PHOTO: GREG BAKER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Thursday that he hadn’t seen the Douyin videos but added that China sought to meet any reasonable demands from Chinese people living overseas. Xinjiang’s government didn’t immediately reply to a faxed request for comment.
Arslan Hidayat, a Uighur-Australian activist based in Turkey, is among a number of activists who have broadened the reach of the videos by sharing dozens on Facebook and Twitter. He said the silence in the videos and circumspect responses to questions in the comments sections reinforced the likelihood that those loved ones weren’t free.
“One posts, ‘When are we going to see our brothers?’ and another says, ‘Oh, stay strong, they’ll come out soon,’ ” Mr. Hidayat said.
In recent months, Beijing has intensified efforts to counter Western condemnation of the Xinjiang detentions, which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called “the stain of the century.” Beijing rallied 37 allies in July to sign a letter in support of China’s Xinjiang policies after the U.K., Japan and 20 other countries signed one calling on Beijing to end its repressive policies on Uighurs.
Halmurat Harri Uyghur, a Finland-based activist, said Xinjiang residents would have known they were risking government punishment by posting the videos to Douyin.
“If they are in the Uighur region, they are risking their lives to give testimonies,” he said.
Vanessa Frangville, a Chinese studies professor at Belgium’s Université Libre de Bruxelles, said the silent crying of the videos reflected the tightness of restrictions on Uighurs to prevent them from speaking freely about conditions in the region.
“They use body, eye or finger language that is still to be decoded,” she said.


Following years of Russian noncompliance, the United States officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on August 2. The Cold War-era arms control agreement had banned land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometres, and the next day the new US defence secretary, Mark Esper, told reporters that he wanted to counter China’s massive missile inventory “sooner rather than later". China responded furiously.
Ironically, the threat comes as the most conspicuous flash point between the two countries, China’s military buildup on its artificial islands in the South China Sea, appears to be reaching a peak. In part, this is because of limits on the bases’ military usefulness in future conflict.
The key reason, however, is that the backlash and counterbalancing that China's militarisation encourages from the United States and others threaten the islands’ usefulness as a political signal at home, something that the Communist Party may value far more than their actual military potency.
The purpose of China's manmade South China Sea islands may be more to shore up power at home than abroad. David Rowe
Since 2013, China has constructed more than 3000 dredged-up acres across seven features that are now studded with long-range sensor arrays, port facilities, runways, and reinforced bunkers for fuel and weapons.
That’s a huge military footprint, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nominal 2015 pledge not to militarise the islands and the Foreign Ministry’s claims that these “necessary defence facilities” are provided primarily for maritime safety and natural disaster support.
But as conspicuous as the bases’ capacity to project China’s offensive power is how little of that might Beijing has actually deployed there. The Pentagon’s latest report on China’s military notes that no new militarisation has been observed since China placed air defence and anti-ship missiles in the Spratlys last year.
General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently remarked that if China’s militarisation of the islands had plateaued, it was because they had achieved the military capability China required of them. If that’s true, then China requires much less of those bases militarily than their apparent potential to deliver.
Despite the islands’ scale, China’s maximalist regional claims, and its aggressive coercion of regional rivals, tension between China’s political and military incentives suggest it has little more to gain from expanding its buildup in the Spratly Islands and it could even have quite a bit to lose.
Additional overt militarisation doesn’t help China exert control over the South China Sea in peacetime and may not be decisive in wartime. It also encourages a greater and more public US military presence, undermining the islands’ political symbolism. It also reduces China’s room for diplomacy and de-escalation in a crisis, increasing the potential for an uncertain and potentially embarrassing clash that would risk further undermining the party’s legitimacy.
The United States can leverage those incentives to its advantage as it debates how to implement the Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy, but if it pushes back too hard, the Communist Party may feel it has to escalate to preserve its legitimacy.
A man-made Chinese airstrip in the heavily contested South China Sea. AP
China is hardly reticent in asserting its maximalist claims over the South China Sea. Its law enforcement and paramilitary maritime militia vessels, often operating out of those same bases in the Spratly Islands, keep up a strong campaign of harassment and coercion against coastal states with competing claims and in contravention of provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and a 2016 international arbitration rulingthat nullified most of China’s claims.
But compared with the expanding shadow of China’s gray-zone activity, the military presence on its Spratly bases is anaemic. In early 2016, US intelligence assessed that those bases would be capable of hosting significant force projection capabilities by the end of that year. Three years on from that assessment, China has yet to deploy warplanes or other long-range strike weapons that can hit land targets to the islands, though they appear more than capable of accommodating them.
Instead of the vital maritime crossroads that China depends on for its energy imports, it might instead find itself in control of a virtual lake.
One explanation is that the region’s climate simply isn’t hospitable to China’s most advanced military systems. Chinese state media reported in 2017 on special measures required to protect a short deployment of J-11 fighter jets to the Paracel Islands (which were not covered by Xi’s 2015 pledge) from the island’s heat and humidity.
More recent reports claim that China’s environmental problems in the Spratlys are even more serious, with heat and humidity causing structures to crumble, mechanical equipment to fail, and even some weapon systems to break down. This is on top of persistent concerns about the artificial islands’ ability to withstand a major Pacific weather event – and a poor record of equipment and infrastructure maintenance in general in an often corruption-riddled People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Peacetime assets but wartime liabilities

The islands are useful during peacetime to monitor rivals’ air and sea movements and as a base for coast guard and maritime militia operations against those countries’ fishermen and hydrocarbon exploitation. But increasing its overt military capability on the islands neither increases China’s practical civil control over waters crowded with rival fishermen and law enforcement vessels nor deters the presence of US and other foreign warships and planes. And in wartime, that additional militarisation may not translate to a decisive advantage over the United States anyway.
The bases’ distance and isolation from China’s mainland leave them comparatively exposed, and their military utility will diminish rapidly the longer a conflict goes on. In the early stages of a clash, the bases provide the PLA with positions to stage preemptive missile and airstrikes and resupply its ships and aircraft. But the Spratlys are also more than 500 nautical miles from their closest point of resupply, China’s naval and air bases on Hainan Island. They are much closer to the Philippines, an occasionally strained USally but one increasingly sceptical of China’s intentions.
The islands are also fixed, relatively small, and isolated targets with no so-called civilian collateral on them and provide little cover or protection, especially against new long-range precision strike weapons and island raid and seizure operations that the US military is developing.
In a conflict with the United States, as those bases became damaged and degraded through air and missile strikes, repairing and resupplying them would become increasingly expensive and challenging, drawing away warships and air cover that the PLA might prefer to commit elsewhere rather than using them to protect islands with rapidly shrinking usefulness.
The strategic value of China’s Spratly bases in a conflict is similarly dubious. The bases are more than 800 nautical miles from the crucial Singapore Strait and as much as twice that by sea to the nearest alternate passages, Indonesia’s Sunda and Lombok straits. Their central location might help China control the South China Sea’s interior but not the maritime choke points in and out of it.
In a conflict, China’s South China Sea neighbours, with help from the United States and other coalition partners, could close those choke points to China’s naval and merchant fleets. Instead of the vital maritime crossroads that China depends on for 80 per cent of its energy imports, China might instead find itself in control of a virtual lake, and that only briefly, given the islands’ other liabilities.

Building islands, constructing legitimacy

These limitations on the bases’ strategic and operational value demand an alternative theory for their construction: the governing legitimacy and political primacy of China’s Communist Party.
Chatham House fellow Bill Hayton’s historical research shows that China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea emerged across several governments over the past century during periods of flagging domestic support to bolster governments’ popular legitimacy. That historical context aligns with the conclusions of regional observers like Bilahari Kausikan, a long-serving senior Singaporean diplomat.
He argues that the Communist Party depends on the image of defending the state’s territorial integrity and sovereignty to maintain support and that the party can perform its role as the defender of Chinese sovereignty on the unpopulated reefs of the South China Sea, compared with a place like Taiwan, at minimal cost or risk of humiliation or defeat.
This interpretation is bolstered by the recent research of Paul Musgrave and Daniel Nexon. They show that extravagant national projects with costs that outweigh obvious strategic returns, like the bloated Belt and Road Initiative, are commonly efforts to buy back domestic legitimacy or secure a state’s place within the international hierarchy.
Through this lens, the thousands of acres of reclaimed land and the massive runways, hangars, bunkers, and headquarters built in the Spratly Islands are better understood for the symbolic political capital they provide the Chinese regime than their straightforward military value.
The presence of the US military in the South China Sea has helped to keep Beijing's ambitions in check. US Navy
Bolstering the Communist Party’s primacy and China’s position at the top of south-east Asia’s regional hierarchy may not be the exclusive benefit of its South China Sea bases, but it appears to be the most important one. Even recent party publications espouse the island buildup as a demonstration of the Communist Party’s “steadfast determination” to defend China’s sovereignty. This nationalistic underpinning of its governing legitimacy will only become more important as the party ratchets up domestic social repression and the economy slows.

Using China’s anxiety to limit militarisation

If the United States pulled back its regional presence to appease Chinese anxieties over the expanding US presence in the region, China is likelier to use the opportunity to reinforce its position than content itself with the gains it has made to date.
Despite China’s often strident rhetoric, the presence of the US military in the South China Sea has generally heightened its sensitivity to provoking even stronger military responses and motivated greater, if dubiously productive, diplomatic engagement with its neighbours.
To provide the Communist Party that symbolic political capital, China’s Spratly bases simply need to exist, incentivising China to limit the threat those islands pose. The appearance of new high-profile weapons systems on the islands, only to have the US Navy and Air Force defy the Chinese presence with sail-bys and flyovers, makes China’s buildup appear impotent, damaging its symbolic value for the Communist Party.
The Communist Party’s political imperatives compel it to defend its Spratly bases against both genuine threats and capricious humiliation, so the United States should avoid gratuitous shows of force that would demand an escalatory Chinese response.
But those imperatives also incentivise China not to escalate (in real terms if not rhetorical ones) against a routine US military presence and lesser trespasses to avoid the risk of needless humiliation. That gives the United States and its partners wide latitude for assertive policies credible enough to hedge against the most dangerous conflict scenarios while also discouraging additional Chinese militarisation of the Spratly Islands.
Steven Stashwick is an independent writer and researcher based in New York City focused on East Asian security and maritime issues.


As everybody knows, the Rat In Chief, Xi Jin PIG, has sought to weaponise the Han Chinese migrant groups around the world in a desperate attempt to save the Chinese Dictatorship from its imminent and inevitable demise - all in the name of "the China Dream" which, of course, is and will remain an empty and fruitless dream but will indeed soon turn into the biggest, most horrifying "China Nightmare" that that poor part of the globe has ever known!

The reality is that the attempt by the Chinese Dictatorship and the Han Chinese themselves (!) to mobilise their support outside the bounds of the Chinese Empire will inevitably and is already infallibly turn the populations of all countries in which Han Chinese reside into predators for these uncivilised rustic Rats! It is already happening, and indeed the Wall Street Journal is today warning of such an imminent horrific denouement. The fact of the matter is that whilst the number of Han Chinese Rats residing outside the Chinese Empire is very high, there are virtually no foreigners residing in China itself! The result is that Han Chinese will soon become - as a direct result of the foolish, insane desperation of the Chinese Dictatorship! - hostages in the hands of the nations in which they reside. I leave it to your imagination to work out the horrendous implications of this development. While Han Chinese Rats begin to wave their flags in our free democratic countries, believing that our very democratic laws protect them from harm, in reality there is a growing, swelling, uncontrollable and unstoppable tide of resentment building up the world over against the Han Chinese Rats. And they are about to feel it!