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.
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.
(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?)