China

Chinese tech companies appear to censor Uyghur and Tibetan

Public concerns about tech-enabled suppression of ethnic minorities have deepened.

person rides an escalator past a Bilibili Inc. advertisement at a subway station in Shanghai

Uyghur scholars believe tech companies ban minority languages to preemptively avoid trouble, instead of being ordered by Beijing to do so.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just within the past week, two Chinese tech companies that boast of their diversity appeared to have removed Uyghur and Tibetan language offerings, deepening public concerns about the tech-enabled suppression of China's ethnic minorities.

First it was Talkmate, a language-learning app that partners with UNESCO, that posted via its official Weibo account that it had "temporarily" taken down Tibetan and Uyghur language classes "due to government policies." There is no set date for them to return. This announcement was posted last Friday but appears to have been removed. Talkmate is developed by Beijing CooLanguage Times Education Science and Technology Company, a private company. The app, which appears to champion linguistic diversity, offers courses in nearly 100 languages, from Urdu and Montenegrin to Creole and Slovak.

A few days later, web users noticed that popular Chinese streaming service Bilibili had banned comments posted in Uyghur and Tibetan. Screen recordings shared by Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst with ASPI's International Cyber Policy Centre, showed that when he tried to type comments in Uyghur and Tibetan, he received error messages that read: "Comment contains sensitive information." By contrast, comments in non-Mandarin languages appeared to be fine. Judging from screenshots shared by Bilibili users, Bilibili started censoring Uyghur comments as early as summer 2020.

Like Talkmate, Bilibili also boasts of its inclusivity. For years, the platform was a hub for China's ACG [anime, comic and games] fans and a safe haven for various other subcultures. But this once-quirky site has become visibly less edgy — and more nationalist — in the past few years as the Nasdaq-listed company shifted business strategy to attract a mainstream audience.

Neither Bilibili nor Talkmate responded to Protocol's requests for comment.

Talkmate and Bilibili aren't the only Chinese apps that censor ethnic minority languages. A former ByteDance worker told Protocol earlier this year that the company's software engineers had received requests from in-house content moderators to develop an algorithm that could detect Uyghur in a Douyin live stream and then automatically cut the stream off.

On Douyin, TikTok's Chinese original, whenever livestreamers speak an ethnic minority language and/or a dialect that the majority of Mandarin-speakers don't understand, they will receive a warning to switch to Mandarin. If they don't do that, Douyin's content moderators will manually cut off the livestream, regardless of the actual content.

One major reason for this policy was a lack of employees who actually spoke Uyghur. "When it comes to Uyghur, with an algorithm that did this automatically, the moderators wouldn't have to be responsible for missing content that authorities could deem to have instigated 'separatism' or 'terrorism,'" the former ByteDance worker told Protocol. The worker added that their team ended up not creating a tool to censor Uyghur speech because they didn't have enough Uyghur language data points in their system, and popular livestreams had already been under close monitoring.

Mandarin is China's official language; over 70% of citizens speak it. China's constitution enshrines the freedom for all ethnicities to "use and develop their own spoken and written languages." But several ethnic minority languages, namely Uyghur, Tibetan and, to a certain extent, Mongolian, have been pushed to the margins under Xi Jinping's rule as the Party takes an increasingly aggressive stance on ethnic assimilation, according to Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, the head of the National People's Congress' Legislative Affairs Commission declared that local regulations that allow schools to teach in minority languages are "inconsistent" with the constitution and other national laws.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University who has researched the technology and politics of urban life in Xinjiang, told Protocol that he's not aware of central government policies that require tech companies to filter ethnic minority languages.

"Outside of Xinjiang I've also seen tech firms selectively delete Uyghur-language videos," Byler said. "But it appears to be more about the company's own concern with compliance or preventing trouble rather than a direct order from [the] central government."

"If there are policies that support this, it likely is couched as a national security concern," Byler added. "The state appears to be quite concerned that uncensored or unevaluated Uyghur speech be permitted to circulate freely."

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