CDT Weekly, February 12-18: Ilham Tohti, Xinjiang, and Why Clubhouse Had to Die

Welcome to the second edition of CDT’s weekly roundup, also available as an email newsletter through Substack. With these updates, we aim to provide an overview of new content across CDT’s English and Chinese sites, as well as the bilingual China Digital Space wiki, and related content elsewhere.

The highlight of our translation content this week was a long essay from 2009 by journalist and website founder Huang Zhangjin, describing his friendship and discussions with Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti after the latter’s detention in the wake of violent unrest in Urumqi in 2009. The essay was reposted on Matters last week following discussion of the ongoing mass detentions in Xinjiang on Clubhouse and Weibo.

Some of the views attributed to Ilham in Huang’s paraphrased recollections may be unpalatable: he approvingly quotes Liu Xiaobo’s views on the benefits of Western colonialism, and implicitly disparages the industriousness of people from other developing regions. But the essay clearly conveys Ilham’s vision of an alternative path for Xinjiang within the People’s Republic, far from the aggressive suppression that has intensified under Xi Jinping, or the alleged separatism for which Ilham was sentenced to life in prison in 2014.

Ilham insisted that Uyghur’s pursuit of equality and freedom must not be separated from Han people’s advancement of freedom and democracy. The two must be closely integrated. The situation of the Uyghurs was a result of the lack of democracy and freedom in China as a whole. Uyghurs can gain freedom and democracy only if Han people can also achieve them. […]

[…] After the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, I rushed back to Beijing. Ilham had been glued to the TV. With his stubborn optimism and his Uyghur perspective, he’d often come up with things that I had overlooked. I remembered seeing him exclaim, with tears in his eyes, “Sichuan people are extraordinary. Compared to Westerners, Chinese people—Han people—you live under such lousy governance, as lowly as wild grass, as numb as animals. But just look at the Sichuan people after the earthquake, the sheer tenacity and perseverance. That’s truly extraordinary, the exuberant vitality and staunch willpower. Are there any other people who could have done better than the Han people? Who can conquer them? You know why so many Uyghurs in Xinjiang are donating blood and supplies? They are so moved! Wow, such people ought not to, and will not, live like this forever. Alas, with a people like this, the country has hope.”

Ilham laments that “those Han people who shout about freedom and democracy don’t care about us. […] Why is it that some Han intellectuals always suspect Uyghurs of engaging in ethnic separatism whenever we speak about ethnic equality?” The essay also brings out some shades of disagreement between his own views and those of more sympathetic Han, particularly the writer Wang Lixiong, whose pessimistic outlook Ilham found disturbing. Wang famously commented following Ilham’s prosecution in 2014 that “the only conclusion is dark: it’s that they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.”

Another translation since our last newsletter was a deleted WeChat post on the blocking of audio-based chatroom app Clubhouse, discussed in last week’s newsletter, titled “Why Did Clubhouse Have to Die?” Author “Zi Ge” praised the platform’s empathy-promoting focus on direct spoken communication, and its “harmonious and rational atmosphere for dialogue,” but argued that these very qualities are what made it intolerable to the authorities: “Because in the eyes of the relevant department, rationality means the beginning of reflection, and freedom and loss of control are synonymous. These facts both carry enormous potential energy, posing a grave threat to stability.”

Zi Ge anticipated the arrival of “castrated” homegrown Clubhouse clones monitored automatically for sensitive words in real time. The underlying audio technology for Clubhouse itself, they noted, is provided by another company, Agora, based in Shanghai. A team at the Stanford Internet Observatory examined that connection’s technical and legal implications, having “determined that a user’s unique Clubhouse ID number and chatroom ID are transmitted in plaintext, and Agora would likely have access to users’ raw audio, potentially providing access to the Chinese government. In at least one instance, SIO observed room metadata being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in the PRC, and audio to servers managed by Chinese entities […].” SIO’s Alex Stamos, previously Chief Security Officer at Facebook, commented on Twitter:

Stamos also posted the company’s response to SIO’s findings, which included a promise to “prevent Clubhouse clients from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers” within 72 hours, and subsequently to have these changes independently reviewed. SIO noted that “we have not verified any of Clubhouse’s statements.” Zheping Huang also looked at the precarious afterlife of Clubhouse in China at Bloomberg on Wednesday, while Rest of World’s Andrew Deck and Sultan Quadri explored recent spikes in the app’s popularity in Hong Kong, Japan, Indian, and Nigeria.

CDT joined Clubhouse last week, and on Sunday our Chinese team hosted what became a four-and-a-half-hour Q&A session with Eric Liu, a former censor at Weibo and Leshi. Questions focused heavily on the underlying reasoning and mechanisms of censorship on Chinese social media, and the viability of strategies like using non-standard dialects for evading it. Another insider view came this week from Shen Lu at Protocol, who translated an account by a censor at TikTok parent company Bytedance.

On the news front, CDT English covered:

Highlights from CDT Chinese include dissenting views on the Spring Festival Gala; more on Clubhouse and its blocking; and mourning in Wuhan a year on from its historic lockdown at the start of the pandemic, including official media’s appropriation of citizens buying flowers for the dead, and restrictions imposed after the location of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang’s grave was posted online.


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