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Online restrictions limit access to Dalai Lama's Kalachakra teaching

January 16, 2017

Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, January 10, 2017 - From January 2 to 13 2017, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is holding a popular Tibetan Buddhist teaching called Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya, India, which is the site where the Buddha is believed to have gained enlightenment. Over 200,000 people from around the world are expected to attend this year’s ritual. Increased restrictions from the government of China has barred Tibetans in Tibet from attending the teachings. This report documents blocking of Kalachakra-related keywords on WeChat revealing how restrictions around the ritual extend online.

Chinese Government Restrictions Tighten over Kalachakra

Reportedly, nearly 7,000 Tibetans inside Tibetan areas who planned to make the pilgrimage to Kalachakra are facing restrictions from the government of China that are preventing their attendance. These restrictions include the confiscation of passports, blocking passengers from boarding aircraft, and ordering Tibetans who had traveled to India and Nepal in November with plans to attend the event to promptly return to Tibetan areas. Tibetans who were ordered to return were reportedly threatened with reprisals against their families if they disobeyed. Chinese authorities in Tibetan areas have called Kalachakra an “illegal” gathering.

An official notice circulated in Dechen in Yunnan province obtained by Radio Free Asia, prohibited any involvement in the event or sharing of information about Kalachakra over the Internet or social media and warned “Other related activities, such as organizing celebrations in support of the Kalachakra, are also forbidden. Anyone engaging in these acts will be in violation of Article 55 of China’s Public Security Law and will face severe consequences.” The notice explains that any violations will be met with police detention of 10 to 15 days or jail sentences of up to five years for serious infractions. Another notice circulated in December warned that anyone found to have participated in Kalachakra will have their passport and ration card confiscated upon return and if the persons are monks or nuns they will lose their right to study Tibetan Buddhism.

Xu Zhitao, deputy director of the bureau of the Tibet question at the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee called the ritual a “political tool” and claimed the Dalai Lama will use it to  propagate ideas of “hating the Chinese government.” The Communist Party of China views the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” who threatens its power. The International Campaign for Tibet described the tightened restrictions as the most systematic crackdown to date on a teaching in exile given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In response to the tightened restrictions, the Dalai Lama sent a message to Tibetans, “Distance cannot dampen the sacred ties between a Lama and a disciple. You can all pray from the far-flung areas in Tibet and I assure you that you will receive the Kalachakra empowerment”.

Kalachakra Blocked on WeChat

WeChat is the most popular chat app in China and has gained wide adoption by Tibetans around the world. Operating a chat application in China requires following laws and regulations on content control and monitoring. To comply with these regulations, WeChat enables keyword filtering for users with accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers. Censorship of keywords is not transparent and no notice is given to a user if their message is blocked.

A message with a keyword that is blocked by WeChat simply does not appear. WeChat has higher levels of keyword blocking in group chats (which can reach up to 500 users) than one-to-one chat. The greater attention to group chat may be due to the semi-public sphere feature of online discussion groups. Messages can reach wider audiences in group chat and potentially be used to organize protests and other public mobilizations, which may be why it is subject to a higher level of scrutiny.

In previous research we showed that Tibet-related content targeted for censorship on WeChat. There have also been cases of Tibetans being arrested for sharing chat messages, songs, and photos on WeChat with content related to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture that Chinese authorities alleged carried “anti-China” sentiments.

WeChat performs censorship on the server-side. When you send a message it passes through a remote server that contains rules for implementing censorship. If the message includes a keyword that has been targeted for blocking, the message will not be sent. Documenting censorship on a system with a server-side implementation such as WeChat’s requires devising a sample of keywords to test, running those keywords through the app, and recording the results.

Our previous work found that censorship on WeChat is dynamic and keyword lists are updated in reaction to news events. We conducted tests to determine if keywords related to news events were blocked by collecting front page articles from international and independent news media websites (e.g., BBC Chinese, New York Times Chinese, Radio Free Asia Mandarin, Voice of Tibet, Deutsche Welle Chinese). We copy the text of the article into a chat between an account registered to a mainland China phone number and accounts registered to international phone numbers. If we found the article was censored we then reduce the text in the article down to the minimum number of keywords required to trigger censorship. From this initial set of keywords we then tested other related keywords in different languages.

The tests revealed a number of keywords related to Kalachakra blocked on WeChat in English, Chinese, Tibetan and Hindi in group chat mode when using an account registered to a Chinese phone number.

WeChat censors single keywords and combination of keywords. For keyword combinations, blocking is triggered if a set of keywords are used together in a message. If the same keywords are sent individually the message is not blocked.

Conclusion

Chinese social media platforms routinely and systematically censor Tibet-related content. Previous work has documented the extent of this censorship on microblogs, video sharing sites, live streaming apps, and chat apps (including WeChat). The blocking of Kalachakra related keywords demonstrates that censorship on WeChat is dynamic and keyword lists are updated in response to current events. Tibetans with WeChat accounts registered to mainland China phone numbers who try to communicate about Kalachakra may find themselves blocked, showing that the restrictions to the Tibetan community offline are mirrored online.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Tibet Action Institute for assistance and to Lhakpa Kyizom for permission to use photography.

To read the full article with charts/graphics, see https://citizenlab.org/2017/01/tibetans-blocked-from-kalachakra-at-borders-and-on-wechat/

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