China starts to lift Xinjiangs Web blackout

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jan 1 2010, 02:14am hrs
Jonathan Ansfield

Nearly six months after gruesome ethnic rioting on the western frontier of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities gingerly began to lift an Internet blackout on Tuesday, allowing partial access to a pair of official news sites.

The Xinjiang regional government said it also planned to restore other Websites and services, cellphone text messaging and international telephone connections later, based on the relevant situation, step by step, according to an official statement.

For now, though, people in Xinjiang can visit the sites of the official government news agency, Xinhua, and the Communist Partys main newspaper, Peoples Daily. Even on those reliably policed sites, the regions Web users were still barred from engaging in e-mail, blogging or forums. It also took noticeably longer to load pages than it had before the riots, one user said.

After languishing under a communications lockdown as protracted and geographically far-reaching as any in China in the digital age, some residents were thrilled with even so modest an opening.People here have been feeling so helpless and bored, you wouldnt believe how excited some were today, said a Ms Li, a journalist in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, who did not want to disclose her full name for fear of losing her job.

The restrictions had played an important role in safeguarding the stability throughout the region, but at the same time they had brought a good deal of inconvenience to normal production and life, the Xinjiang government acknowledged.The authorities there severed Internet, cellphone messaging and international telephone service the day after long-simmering frictions erupted on July 5 in Urumqi. Nearly 200 people were killed and more than 1,700 were wounded in the rioting, according to official tolls, most of them Han Chinese.

The violence began when members of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur minority took to the streets, partly in reaction to a deadly showdown in southeast China days before.

Chinese authorities charged that Uighur separatist networks mobilised rioters via phones and popular social networking sites, and have defended the blackouts on security grounds. But in Xinjiang, residents widely assert that the government squeeze on information stoked further tensions and unrest, such as during a spate of syringe stabbings in Urumqi in August. Deadly protests ensued in early September, and the city's mayor and the regional police chief were promptly dismissed.

In Xinjiang, local authorities, banks and phone service providers have been able to send text messages, but private citizens still cannot. People can read news on a number of local government-run media sites that were restored in August, yet most of those sites are blocked to viewers outside the region.

State firms and some large companies have been able to apply to hook up to the Web outside Xinjiang, but smaller businesses generally cannot. Even at popular online trading posts that have been switched back on, Web users in Xinjiang can deal only with others in Xinjiang. Some have driven hundreds of miles away to Gansu province to conduct business.

In September, Xinjiang passed a broadly worded Bill banning online speech that incites separatism and upsets national unity and social stability, and ordered service providers to monitor their systems for such provocations. The authorities have enlisted local Communist Youth League members to act as online supervisors.

But even on local news portals that have been operating for months, Web forums, blog and e-mail services remain off limits.

On Tuesday, the same constraints seemed to apply to the two newly accessible sites, and, people in Xinjiang said.

The government statement quoted a regional official saying e-mail services would eventually be restored on major sites under certain conditions, but did not specify them. The statement asked people for their further understanding and support.