6 Months Without Internet in China Considered World’s Largest, Longest Blackout
January 19, 2010 - 4:41 PMThey arrive at this gritty desert crossroads weary from a 13-hour train ride but determined. The promised land lies just across the railway station plaza: a large, white sign that says "Easy Connection Internet Cafe."
The visitors are Internet refugees from China's western Xinjiang region, whose 20 million people been without links to the outside world since the government blocked virtually online access, text messages and international phone calls after ethnic riots in July. It's the largest and longest such blackout in the world, observers say.
Every weekend, dozens of people pile off the train in Liuyuan, a sandswept town on the ancient Silk Road that's the first train stop outside Xinjiang, 400 miles (650 kilometers) east of Urumqi, the regional capital.
"We must get online! We must!" said Zhao Yan, a petite, ponytailed businesswoman from Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi. She has rented the same private booth in the Internet cafe every weekend since August in an uphill battle to keep her small trading business going.
"If this goes on another couple of months, I'll have to give up," Zhao said. "I can't keep up with the outside world, and I'm losing money."
Xinjiang residents are without Internet links unless they flee to farflung places like Liuyuan. One customer had traveled 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) just to get online.
Authorities unplugged Xinjiang, a sprawling area three times the size of Texas, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the ethnic rioting between the Han Chinese majority and the mainly Muslim Uighur minority that the government says left almost 200 dead. China's government blamed overseas activists for the riots, saying they stirred up resentment in the Uighur community through Web sites and e-mails.
For many, it feels like being thrown back in time 30 years.
Xinjiang now has no e-mail. No blogs. No instant messaging. The government this month promised Internet access would resume "gradually," but it also said the same thing in July and not much has changed. So far, only four restricted Web sites, half of them state-run media, have returned.
No country has shut down an information infrastructure so widely for so long, said the Open Net Initiative, a Harvard-linked partnership that monitors Internet restrictions around the world. Some former Soviet Union countries have done it during sensitive elections, but "the blackout only lasted for hours or days at most," said Rafal Rohozinski, the group's principal investigator.
The normal Internet in China is already among the world's most restricted.
"The fact that the Chinese authorities had to resort to shutting down and cutting off the entire infrastructure ... is indicative of the difficulty they are having in controlling cyberspace," Rohozinski said.
"You can look at news or movies. That's it. It's all one-way," said a 23-year-old from Urumqi, who sat a few screens away from Zhao and was clicking between an e-mail account and a Russian-language Web site. He'd been online for 11 hours. He didn't give his name because he's half Uighur and was worried about retribution from authorities.
Liuyuan has little more to offer the Xinjiang refugees besides its Internet connection and its steady supply of cross-country trains. "You don't want to stay here," said the desk clerk at the Liutie Hotel, the only guesthouse in town. Most people who get off the train are headed for the famous oasis of Dunhuang, two hours to the south.
On Sunday, most of the Xinjiang customers bolted back home after hearing word that mobile phone text-messaging services had finally resumed. The region's mobile phone users sent 42.84 million text messages the first day of service alone, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Users are still limited to no more than 20 texts per day, with no international service. International calls from Xinjiang remain also blocked. Residents can call overseas only from a China Telecom office, where they first have to show their ID. In some places, people wait in line for more than an hour.
"It's like it's back to the '70s, when we just had radios and a loudspeaker. We just heard whatever (the government) said and we had no choice," said Liu Jun, a Hong Kong resident who grew up in Xinjiang. Since her hometown can't receive overseas calls, she now must cross the border to the mainland just to telephone her parents.
One Xinjiang woman who wanted to chat with her American husband finally took an overnight bus to neighboring Kazakhstan to get online.
"It's like a social experiment - what would happen if we take away the Internet?" said the husband, Kevin Komoroka, who lives in Missouri. He said their work on her U.S. visa application has slowed to a crawl and now relies on air mail. "No one at any sort of level knows when it will end."
An international scientific conference was relocated outside the region. A board member of an international academic association travels regularly to Beijing, 1,800 miles from Urumqi, to check her e-mail. The Federal Express office in Urumqi tells customers to check orders by phone instead.
The Xinjiang government has said foreign investment and tourism were "seriously" affected last year, though it points to the July violence alone. Import-export business fell 38.8 percent in the first nine months of last year, dropping almost 18 percentage points more than the rest of China, it said in a report this month.
"We're like deaf people now," said Wei Chengzhi, who works in the online service office of Xinjiang Wind Energy Co. Ltd. "We're working on a joint project with a partner company in Shanghai. We can't communicate with them. Nor can we do any online research."
Xinjiang's commerce department says it now offers Internet access to companies that can get approval from the local foreign trade or foreign investment office, but only on weekdays.
One business owner couldn't wait. Just after the riots, Ma Hui and her husband took off on a three-day road trip east to Beijing to keep their dried fruit company going. Since then, her husband has lived in the capital to deal with online orders, while Ma lives in Urumqi and handles the product.
"We've been married three years and we've never lived apart before," she said. "We don't know when to expect the Internet to come back to normal."
One person who doesn't mind the blackout is the owner of Liuyuan's Easy Connection Internet Cafe, who wouldn't give his name but said he was quite happy with the increased business.
As night fell in Liuyuan, Zhao sighed and returned to her work online. She had three more hours before taking the overnight train home to Urumqi, but she expected to be back and online Saturday morning.
It's easy to recognize her fellow refugees by their computer bags, Zhao said.
"You should go to Jiuquan," the next major stop east along the railway, she said. "It's a bigger city, and even more people go there. They check into the hotels and use the broadband."
A faster connection - another 200 miles (320 kilometers) away.
(Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)