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After Long Ban, Western China Is Back Online

May 19, 2010

 

BEIJING — Full Internet service was restored to the vast western Chinese region of Xinjiang on Friday, 10 months after it was blocked following deadly ethnic rioting that convulsed the regional capital, Urumqi. The blockage was the longest and most widespread in China since the Internet became readily available throughout the country a decade ago.

The announcement was made in the morning, and many residents in cities across Xinjiang took the day off from school or work to rush to Internet cafes, where they pored through months of unread e-mail messages or chatted via instant messaging. Some also dived back into online gaming, one of China’s most popular pastimes (“World of Warcraft” imitators being the most played).

In the violence in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people that is the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, rampaged through the streets after security forces tried to break up a protest over social injustices. The government says at least 197 people were killed and 1,600 injured, most of them ethnic Han, the majority in China. Many Uighurs resent discrimination by the Han, who are migrating in large numbers to Xinjiang and hold the top positions of power.

The Chinese government blamed overseas Uighur groups for using the Internet to stir up hostilities, and in particular they pointed at Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur exile living in the Washington area. Ms. Kadeer has denied the accusations. After the initial rioting, the government cut off Internet service and cellphone text messaging across Xinjiang, which makes up one-sixth of China’s territory.

On Friday, the regional government Web site carried a brief statement on the restoration of service: “For the stability, economic development and the needs of people from all ethnic backgrounds of the autonomous region, the Communist Party and the government of Xinjiang decided to fully resume Internet services beginning May 14.”

The restoration of Internet service comes before a major central government meeting this month that is aimed at setting new policy in Xinjiang. In late April, the government announced it was replacing the most powerful official in Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, who had been regional party secretary for 15 years. A hard-liner on ethnic issues, he has been widely blamed by Uighurs and Han for creating a poisonous atmosphere.

Mr. Wang’s replacement, Zhang Chunxian, party secretary of Hunan Province, is nicknamed the “Internet secretary” for his use of online tools to communicate with people.

One travel agent in Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road oasis town, said he came into his office Friday morning to find all his co-workers on Yahoo.

“Yes, I am excited, but I have already forgotten all my passwords,” the travel agent, Kasim, said in a telephone interview.

He said he knew people who had moved out of Kashgar — even as far away as Guangdong Province in southeastern China — to ensure they had Internet access. This was especially true of those who needed to use e-mail for their jobs or businesses, Kasim said.

“I’m happy to know that I can recover my old friends, I can finally write to all my friends,” he said.

Late last year, the Xinjiang government slightly relaxed the ban on the Internet, first allowing access to some propaganda-heavy news sites created for the region’s residents. After that, some Chinese e-mail services were reopened. Last month, the government began allowing limited text messaging.

The Internet in Xinjiang, however, is still subject to China’s complicated censorship apparatus, nicknamed the Great Firewall, which blocks social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a vast number of Web pages devoted to delicate subjects (the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre).

The Chinese government has taken a hard line against Internet freedom in the last year. This spring, Beijing created a new department, Bureau Nine, to help police social networking sites and other user-driven forums.

 

Xiyun Yang contributed reporting.

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