China's Uighur Problem Flares, Even As Hong Kong Fades

Beijing's massive internment and surveillance of Muslims comes under scrutiny.

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After suffering a rebuke from demonstrators in Hong Kong last month, Beijing now faces increased scrutiny of its incarceration and reeducation of ethnic Uighurs in the autonomous region of Xinjiang in the northwest. New reports from Vice News and the BBC detailed the extent of the surveillance, forced family separations, and internment of at least one million Muslims, most of whom are ethnic Uighurs. Predata signals show that attention to internal security issues in China is the highest it has been in years — an unwelcome trend for the ruling Communist Party. 

Last week, online attention to subjects related to internal security in China — such as law enforcement agencies, unrest, and separatism — hit its highest level in years. The key drivers of the signal relate to Xinjiang, with the highest levels of activity on Chinese-language web pages about the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Islamic extremist organization founded by Uighur jihadists in Xinjiang, and the 2009 Urumqi riots, a series of violent clashes between security forces, Uighurs, and Han Chinese in the capital of Xinjiang that left nearly 200 dead. Last week was the tenth anniversary of the riots, a fact that likely drove interest in the subject, as well.

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The last time the signal hit such a high level, the focus was also on the Uighur minority. In August 2016, the signal spiked after the Xinjiang regional government passed a harsh counterterrorism law that rights groups said was explicitly aimed at suppressing the Uighurs. Beijing restricts access to and information coming from the province; the increased scrutiny is clearly not in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, as online attention toward Xinjiang increases, interest in Hong Kong has faded. Protests of more than 1 million in mid-June forced the government to suspend an extradition bill that would have enabled mainland courts, overseen by the Communist Party, to try Hong Kong residents. Even after the bill was postponed, online attention to Hong Kong politics and government remained high and anti-government protests continued.

Recently, however, online activity on English- and Chinese-language web pages related to the politics and government of Hong Kong has fallen dramatically. Even when demonstrators stormed and vandalized the Hong Kong legislative council building on July 1, no increase in online attention resulted. 

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Protests and anti-government activity may very well continue in Hong Kong; but for now at least, the demonstrators have faded from the global spotlight.