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Xinjiang residents cope with losing Net access

by Cara AnnaAssociated Press

They 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 had been without links to the outside world since the government blocked virtually all 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. In the past week, a few restrictions have eased, but most remain in effect.

Every weekend, dozens of people pile off the train in Liuyuan, a sand-swept town on the ancient Silk Road that's the first train stop outside Xinjiang, 400 miles east of Urumqi, the regional capital.

"We must get online! We must!" said Zhao Yan, a petite, ponytailed businesswoman from 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 far-flung places like Liuyuan. One customer had traveled 750 miles 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 that 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 OpenNet 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.

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 were blocked, but the official Xinhua News Service reported that they were now allowed, starting Wednesday.