According to the New York Times, the last 10 months have set a record for “the longest and most widespread [blockage] in China since the Internet became readily available throughout the country a decade ago”. The next paragraph of this article goes on to talk about how many Xinjiang residents apparently played hooky from school and work to spend time catching up on months-worth of unread emails and online gaming.
Most everybody I know says they went to work last Friday, but all of them readily admit they’ve been glued to the computer for the remainder of the weekend. Contrary to what I had predicted, all forms of communication available to the rest of China are now available in Xinjiang including Skype, all email clients (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.) and international news.
Now that this dark chapter in Xinjiang’s history is behind us, I would like to take a step back and quickly analyze what effects – both good and bad – have resulted from this blockage and what China and the rest of the world should learn from this.
Blocking the Internet Was a Good Idea
Having lived through the frustration of this internet block, it’s difficult for me to see the “good” in it, but please allow me a try.
Imagine that two kids are fighting over a toy. Usually the situation involves loud screaming and wild tempers, all to gain control of an object neither of them really care for yet both don’t want to see in the others possession.
As an adult, my first reaction would be to just take the toy away and throw it out the window. Problem solved. There’s no more fighting and, more importantly, I have peace and quiet.
Obviously this analogy can only run so far, but I get the feeling that this is what happened in Xinjiang. For lack of any better solution it was decided that the internet would just have to be thrown out the window to stop the fighting.
Some people would probably say that this blockage saved the lives of many people, both Han and Uyghur, who might have used the internet to organize large-scale retaliations (at least, bigger than the ones that did occur). In a point well-argued by Kaiser Kuo, the irony of the internet is that instead of bringing the world closer together it has actually made us “even more fractured and tribal”.
Doing away with the internet effectively minimizes the threat to the people of Xinjiang by getting rid of the problem altogether. If even one life was saved then it was worth it.
Blocking the Internet was a Bad Idea
Of course that’s all fine and dandy if the internet is the root problem. No evidence has been presented to suggest that the internet had anything to do with the riots in July. Immediately following the internet shut down we residents were given no indication of why or how long it would last.
Even if the internet did play a minor role in facilitating hateful communication, that still ignores the point that there was hatred to begin with. I see this all the time in my comments sections and sadly it goes both ways. Either “all Uyghurs” are evil or “the whole of China” is corrupt and deceitful.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but the fact is that the tension in Xinjiang was not started by the internet and, as Xinjiang’s history of riots shows, indeed does not need the internet to spill over into action.
I’ve said this over and over again: the #1 worst side effect of the internet block was the powerful rumor. Since nobody could find out what was going on everyone had to rely on rumors to stay up-to-date. No official government communication kept us informed of what was happening and what was being done to stop it. All we saw were truckloads of police marching up and down the streets.
The internet block was effective in isolating Xinjiang, promoting both fear and distrust between neighbors and friends.
What Should We Learn from This?
I hope that this period in Xinjiang’s history serves as a good case study for China and the rest of the world. There’s no way to rewind time to find out what would have happened had the internet never been cut so we are left to speculate the wisdom of this decision.
I believe that the answer to the following questions will determine how we look back on this choice:
- How did this affect Xinjiang economically? (recent billion-dollar investment announcements suggest Xinjiang hasn’t fared well)
- Is the Uyghur/Han relationship better because of this block?
- Will China view this tactic as successful and therefore use it again?
- Because a majority of Xinjiang’s residents don’t have access to the internet anyway, is this really an effective case study?
I would like to open up this thread to your thoughts, especially those who have experienced this block first-hand. What do you think we should take away from this ordeal?