Today marks five long months since communication was severely cut here in the province of Xinjiang. With the exception of two short trips outside the province during this time, my wife and I have had to sit here and endure a frustrating feeling that we are now living in the stone ages. Still, the information that does find its way to my computer indicates that most people don’t have a complete understanding of this communication blackout.
How much information is really getting into and out of Xinjiang? Is the internet completely cut or just partially? If so, how am I updating this blog while still living in Xinjiang? And the question on everybody’s mind who has any concern about Xinjiang: when will they turn the internet back on?
What Internet is Available within Xinjiang?
The most common misunderstanding I run into with anybody outside the province is the idea that we have no internet whatsoever. Although true in some ways (all email, Skype, and IM have vanished), the statement is bit misleading. While any internet content, especially for English-speakers, is extremely limited, there is plenty still available to be found in Chinese. It seems to me that the government has basically cut the cord to content that is hosted outside the province, but anything within the province is accessible. So what does that leave us with?
- Local government websites: All Xinjiang government websites (such as this one for Urumqi) are viewable and are kept up-to-date as normal. In keeping with my theory about where the content is served, though, no government websites from cities like Beijing or Shanghai are available.
- Local News Sites: Popular news portals such as Tianshannet or iyaxin are available and offer both national and international news (in Chinese). The only English-language news site I’ve seen is the Tianshannet-affiliated AboutXinjiang. National sites like CCTV can’t be viewed and international sites are obviously not available.
- Movie Sites: No, I’m not talking about YouTube but rather a series of city-based sites that offer movies for online viewing (legality questionable). You have to register as a citizen of that city before you can actually view the movie, though.
- Limited Shopping: Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay, is available only on a provincial level, meaning that you can only buy Xinjiang stuff from Xinjiang stores. Needless to say, the selection is pretty pathetic.
- Flash Games: All of the major online games have been cut which has led to the rise of a sad assortment of flash game sites. Various portals offer these games but none of them that I have seen offer online multi-player support.
Is it Possible to Get Access to Internet?
While planning for travel on the October holiday this year I was advised by my school and the local security bureau to stay put for the holiday. I couldn’t believe it. I politely went to the police station and had a conversation with the highest official who would talk to me. I explained to him that because of bank issues, family communication, and general sanity I needed to get on the internet. I needed him to either allow me online or allow me to leave.
First of all, he explained, there was a computer in the security office that had full internet access, but this IP was strictly for monitoring activity in the city. No surprise there, I guess, although I wished he would have let me see this sacred computer. My second option was to leave the province – and he gave me the permission to do so.
But his third option was what surprised me. Individual IP’s, according to this officer, could be opened up with the appropriate permission. This permission, however, had to be granted at three different levels: city, province, and national. And all of them had to be applied for in person. Apparently this is what companies have to do who require online activity for business.
So it is possible to open up the internet, but it’s a difficult and probably impossible for individuals. Which begs the question: “How are you getting on the internet?” If I told you that, I’d have to kill you, but suffice it to say that the foreigner network here has set up and passed along a number of different work-arounds. Those which get leaked get plugged…so my lips are shut.
When Will the Internet Re-Open?
Here is the million-dollar question. If you ask 10 different people in Urumqi when the internet should turn back on you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The list ranges from the 1st of the year to somewhere in the middle of next year but everybody readily admits they’re not for sure.
Until a couple of weeks ago I would have been hesitant to answer this question, but a friend I trust passed along some interesting information that has given me the boldness to make my own predictions. According to some memos sent between the capital and the head office of our city’s main telecom provider, service is expected to open up during the May holiday of 2010.
There you have it. I’ve bet my money and made my prediction. This is just the halfway point…we have another 5 months to go. Of course, being wrong won’t make me sad if it’s sooner rather than later.
Please be wrong, please be wrong…