LIUYUAN, China (AP) - 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 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,
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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 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 Niu 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
One Xinjiang woman who wanted to chat with her American husband
finally took an overnight bus to neighboring Kazakhstan to get
"It's like a social experiment - what would happen if we take
away the Internet?" said the husband, Kevin Komoroski, 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
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.
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