Living Without the Internet for a Year (the REAL Story) | Xinjiang

Living Without Internet for a Year (the REAL Story)

April 21 | 22 Comments

Writing a letter to Xinhua

My Dearest Xinhua,

I want to write a personal thank-you for your recent article about the year-long internet blackout here in Xinjiang. I can’t believe it’s been almost 5 years since the tragic Urumqi riots in July 2009 that resulted in a cut of all internet access, text messaging and international phone calls for 10 straight months.

If only I had been able to view this inconvenience through your eyes I might have been better off. Based on your article, I should be thankful that due to this internet blackout my “singing skills were honed”, that I finally got to “hang out with friends” and I learned how to play Counter-Strike.

Unfortunately, I don’t quite remember the whole ordeal like you do.

A Year Without Internet (the REAL Story)

As you can imagine, life without the internet (or at least the majority of the internet) was difficult for many reasons, not the least of which was the inability to communicate to my family back in the U.S. that we were safe.

I still smile when I remember the phone call that I received from the US Embassy in Beijing the week after the riots. They were relieved to finally connect with me not just to ensure my safety but because, according to the lady I spoke with, “your mom won’t stop calling us”.

At no point were we told when (or if) internet would be restored…”

It was about a month into this communications blackout that my wife and I decided to travel to the neighboring Gansu province, the closest available internet connection. We had to receive permission from the local security office in Karamay before we were cleared to leave.

Keep in mind that at no point were we told when (or if) internet would be restored, so naturally rumors started and spread on a daily basis.

Once we arrived in Gansu we quickly realized that we weren’t the only people with this brilliant idea. Gansu’s “internet tourism” numbers soared during the summer of 2009 and any hotel that didn’t offer a free internet connection missed out on big profits. Unlike us, however, most of these “internet tourists” were Chinese businessmen whose businesses had taken a serious hit following the communications cut. Han, Uyghur, Hui, American – nobody was exempt from the blackout.

For the first time in over a month we were able to make a phone call back to the U.S. and wade through the backlog of emails that had piled up.

Finding Communication Work-Arounds

Once September rolled around and it started to sink in that this might not be “temporary” after all, the newest topic of casual conversation among friends became “What work-around have you found or heard about?

I heard of many people (especially Uyghur who had family abroad) would would call a friend in Beijing or Shanghai and have them literally hold the phone next to a second phone they had used to call internationally. The connection was poor, but it worked.

One work-around ended up working well: long-distance dial-up”

Satellite connections were another option that I heard mentioned more than once, but not only did it have the potential to get you in real trouble, it was also incredibly expensive. There was no way the average Xinjiang person could afford a 10,000+ RMB option. I know I couldn’t.

Oh, and that VPN that usually works so well in China was completely ineffective.

There was one work-around I came across that ended up working well – a dial-up internet connection via a long-distance call to Beijing. It was unbelievably slow and it wasn’t cheap – each minute was charged both long-distance fees and internet usage fees – but it worked. Every day I was able to connect for about 5-10 minutes at most to send emails and try to fix banking problems back at home.

Slowly…Restoring…Slowly…Restoring…

A whopping 6 months after all communication was cut everybody in Xinjiang received a late Christmas gift on December 29th – the internet had been restored! The news naturally spread like wildfire.

No…wait. Hold the celebration. It was only two websites that had been restored – People’s Daily and (surprise!) Xinhua, both government-run news portals.

We were tired of being the pawns in this silly game…”

Two weeks later everybody was buzzing about internet restoration but again, it was only two more websites (Sina and Sohu). Oddly, even these websites were severely censored versions of the original.

By this time all of us – and I’m referring both to foreigners and locals – were tired of being the pawns in this silly game of “When will we actually restore the internet?” I hate to break it to you Xinhua, but if I was stranded on an island and you were the only website I could access I would probably just throw my computer in the ocean.

The Bright Side

To your credit, Xinhua, I will agree that there was some good that came from the 10-month communication blackout.

For instance, without the ability to text message, I actually had to call all my local friends, forcing me to practice my oral Mandarin more than usual. I also got to know my local video store owner by name after “renting” many DVDs, as you called it (nice one, Xinhua…by using the phrase “renting” nobody will know that China was actually selling me pirated DVDs).

That 10-month period of time was “simple and calm” but it certainly wasn’t the utopia you portrayed. I prefer to maintain my ability to communicate, thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Josh

(p.s. one final thought, Xinhua: I’m no journalist, but isn’t quoting “a middle-aged woman”, “a local driver” and “a local citizen” in a non-controversial piece being just a bit over-protective of your sources?)

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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  1. Well. That Xinhua story is probably the most absurd thing I’ll read all week. I was living in Korla at the time and I remember thinking in Aug. 2009 that I was DYING without internet and that it was worth it to go to Hong Kong for a week. Little did I know that it would continue for another nine months. And this was to say nothing of the enormous military/police convoys that patrolled the Korla streets for months after July 2009.

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    Josh Summers on April 21st, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    So true, Rachel! We had a total lockdown for a couple days in Karamay that was quite intense. Apparently rumor had it that some of the people had fled north and were hiding in our city.

    We ended up traveling more than summer than any other summer we’ve been here :) I guess that’s a good thing, though. Ha!

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  2. I was teaching in Urumqi with 4 other Americans that year. Our “Liason” with the school kept telling us that the internet would be restored during the “next holiday” or in “just a couple weeks” for pretty much the entire 10 months. Our families back home managed to use Vonage VoIP to get through the international phone call issues, but they would have to call 50-100 times to get through. Although I must admit, being halfway around the world with no internet was quite the life experience. Led to a lot more exploration of the city and surrounding regions, so at least there’s that?

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    Josh Summers on April 24th, 2014 at 2:54 am

    I agree with you, Sean! I wouldn’t say it was a terrible experience at all…just not something I would want to do again.

    Interesting that a VoIP call actually worked. I think I remember my family attempting the same thing but it never worked. Perhaps they stopped on the 49th try :)

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  3. There was another American teacher at my school and we both discovered we couldn’t listen to our music-it made us cry. I guess it was because of no contact with friends & family outside of China. I wrote a few letters on paper and mailed them but man, it was really hard to write!! Too used to the quick note on Facebook or email I guess.
    The only good thing about it was when I found out about the dial-up numbers. It was like a game of discovery…today this one would work, then it was shut down and I had to find a new one. Kind of like “sticking it to the man” every time one worked. However, It was 100% a bad experience and many people lost their businesses due to Wang Lequan”s stupidity.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 24th, 2014 at 2:56 am

    So true! I had accumulated a list of numerous dial-up connections in Beijing and Shanghai and often had to switch between them.

    Funny thing is, my phone bill would show up and blatantly say that this charge was for “dial-up internet” so it’s not like we were hiding anything really. They knew.

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  4. Thanks for sharing the inside story. This is just unreal, and I’m flabbergasted by the audacity of that drivel in the Xinhua story. I hope this doesn’t happen again, for the sake of everyone! May we all live a “harmonious” existence ;-P

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 24th, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Yea…I’m sure that whoever was tasked to write the Xinhua piece isn’t necessarily proud of their work. It’s a paycheck…I get it. I’m actually thankful they went over the top :)

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  5. Since it is so great without Internet in China, PRC government should just disconnect the whole country from Internet and let 1.3 billion people live in peace and harmony. PRC can also shut down all its websites, lay off all the Internet police and wumao, and save a lot of money too.

    Did they figure out how this Internet interruption impacted the GDP in Xinjiang ?

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on April 24th, 2014 at 3:01 am

    Hey Bill, that’s an excellent question and one that I don’t think will ever be answered. It had a major affect, that’s for sure. Businesses were shut down, tourism numbers plummeted (who wants to travel where there’s heavy internet restriction?) and I know for a fact that it has deterred future business from moving out here knowing what the government is willing to do.

    No, such a study would be too damaging to conduct.

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  6. Chinese official media… I remember that in late 2009, the China Daily bravely reported that parents in Xinjiang were happy that their teenagers could no longer cheat for doing their homework and waste hours playing on line, since they no longer had internet.
    PS. I too wondered at that time about the economic impact of that cutoff. I doubt that we’ll get reliable data on that anytime soon.

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    Josh Summers on April 24th, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Yea, I agree. See my reply to Bill’s comment above. It’s interesting what state media will say, especially when the more prudent course of action would just be to remain silent.

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  7. Good article indeed.

    After reading this article, what makes me think is that why the Han Chinese people, as affected by this internet blockage for so long just like anybody else, cannot make any effort in peace-making, campaigning, or at least resisting the ridiculous situation that the Uyghurs have to go through. Han Chinese people can do more because they face less restriction, less penalty, and therefore have more liberty to do things. After all, they also represent over 40% of the population.

    I see in other parts of China, Han Chinese people are more open. Maybe Xinjiang’s policy has crashed both Uyghur and Han people’s spirit.

    [Reply]

    Jack Foreigner on May 1st, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    That’s funny: my understanding, based on second-hand accounts (Gladney? Kaltman? Rudelson? I forget exactly whose), is that Han in Xinjiang tend to be more open in their outlook than those from the inland provinces (i.e., most of China) due to their exposure to competing social narratives and just another worldview in general….

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  8. Sorry, I’m not up on Xinjiang life (hey, that’s why I’m here, to learn!), but it seems like you were able to receive phone calls…but not make them? Or not international ones??

    Yeah the internet getting shutdown is a big hassle (and for ten months it’s definitely counter-revolutionary!!) but I’m confused as to the telephone situation. Is everything VoIP there??

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on May 3rd, 2014 at 11:46 am

    We weren’t able to make or receive international phone calls during that time. Domestic calls were never shut down (you could call Beijing or Shanghai) but outside of China was not possible at the time. Definitely a hassle!

    Does that make better sense?

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  9. Was living in Xinjiang during that time too. At the time, I couldn’t wait for the internet to come back, though looking back, there was a certain romance to living in far western China, almost completely cut off from the outside world.

    When the riots happened, I was at home in the US, and wasn’t even sure if I’d still be able to come teach. After arriving, found out quickly that if my parents used comfi.com’s calling service, the call would be routed through what I assume was another Chinese number, meaning that I could get their calls…I remember spending Christmas ’09 in Dushanzi, and walking through empty streets, a little tipsy after drinking at a friend’s place, at 3 in the morning to a really fancy hotel that somehow had an agreement with the government (I think because it hosted foreign oil workers/executives) to allow international phone calls, and calling home at an exorbitant rate to say Merry Christmas to the family. Years later, it’s still one of my favorite China memories –something about the cold air, snow on the ground, and being young and in a unique and exciting place.

    So I may be in the minority, but I would agree with Xinhua that some good things did come from this, even if I also agree with the blog’s author that the entire 9 month episode was ridiculous and unnecessary.

    [Reply]

    Josh Summers on May 3rd, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Thanks for your comment, P! And I agree with you – I look back on that time quite fondly and without bitterness. I hope that’s not what this article conveyed.

    It’s when I read Xinhua tell me that the “good” that came out of it was being a better KTV singer or a better friend…I cringe. It was just an over-the-top piece that I felt needed to be responded to :)

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    Carl on August 23rd, 2014 at 5:35 am

    I was in Urumqi too during the massacres which were referred to euphemistically as “The Riots”. It was the beginning of the long summer holiday, and I had worked lined up at a private school during the school holidays.This was cancelled as the school was located too near Er Da Chao area and parents were afraid. Yes, overseas calls were not available, but the Consul from my embassy phoned me fairly regularly to relay family messages and do some banking. Most consulates and embassies advised their nationals living in Urumqi at the time to leave the city with contracts being allowed to be broken because of the “force majeure” clause in them coming into effect. A lot of the foreign residents did leave. The effect I noticed in the city for almost two years after those awful events was a kind of psychological shock affecting everyone. No-one wanted to go out to visit friends or go to parks etc. A pall of gloom, rumour, and paranoia hung over the city for a long time. Although it was annoying not having email and the internet for a year, it was fun going on “email trips” on the train just across the border and into the next province at Dunhuang. As well as internet, there were the Mogao Caves to visit and a state of the art museum full of archaeological treasures.