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
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
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.