HONG KONG—Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are maintaining tight controls over the Internet and long-distance phone calls, almost four months after ethnic clashes that left nearly 200 people dead.
The curbs appear to come as part of an effort to maintain stability after deadly rioting in July between Han Chinese and ethnic minority Uyghurs in the regional capital, Urumqi.
Uyghurs living in Central Asia, North America, and Europe meanwhile report that they are almost entirely unable to phone, text, or email relatives in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
“Communication is a big problem,” an Urumqi branch office manager for the Shen Ou Communications Equipment Co. said.
“We have to use alternative methods like express delivery to send out documents,” said the manager, who asked to be identified by his surname, Cao.
He said many Urumqi-based companies have now relocated to neighboring Gansu province, more than 1,000 kms (620 miles) away, where there is still a reliable Internet connection.
“Many companies have moved their offices from Urumqi to places like Lanzhou, in Gansu,” Cao said. “We communicate with them by telephone and fax.”
He said he is hoping that the Internet will return to normal in Urumqi by the end of the year.
“If we are not online, people cannot find us,” he said.
In a report Oct. 29, the nonprofit press freedom group Reporters
Without Borders (RSF) said its survey had found more than 85 percent of
Web sites dedicated to the Uyghur community—in Uyghur, Mandarin, and
English—were “blocked, censored, or otherwise unreachable” in Xinjiang.
The RSF survey in October examined around 100 Uyghur Web sites, portals, forums, blogs, and other kinds of online platforms.
An Urumqi-based Han Chinese office worker surnamed Zhang said that telephone networks, both fixed-line and mobile, are also often unreliable.
“Text messages cannot be sent out, and we cannot surf the Internet either. There is simply no Internet connection,” she said.
“Internet companies have suffered big losses. Xinjiang is going to be left behind again as a result of this,” she said.
An employee at an Internet telephony service provider in Urumqi confirmed that they had suffered huge losses following the riots.
“Our company’s service was immediately shut down,” he said. “No Internet service is running. The losses were big.”
Internet-based service providers have suffered the most during the information lockdown, according to a second local employee, surnamed Zhang.
“Those who depend on the Internet to do business don’t know what to do,” he said.
New law passed
One businessman said he is hanging on in Urumqi, trying to conduct his foreign trade business out of the offices of the Xinjiang Council for the Promotion of Trade.
After pulling the plug on the entire region’s Internet and phone services in the immediate wake of the violence in July, the Xinjiang authorities passed a law making it a criminal offense to discuss separatism on the Internet.
Xinjiang’s People’s Congress Standing Committee passed the “Information Promotion Bill” banning people in the region from using the Internet in any way that undermines national unity, incites ethnic separatism, or harms social stability.
Armed police now stand guard in public places around the XUAR and are detaining anyone found with footage of ethnic riots in July.
According to a 26-year-old American blogger living in Xinjiang, Dunhuang city in neighboring Gansu has become a mecca for businessmen from Xinjiang.
“Pretty much the first city outside of Xinjiang with Internet access, Dunhuang has become the place for all businessmen and foreigners to go to regain access to email and business contacts,” he wrote in an Oct. 19 posting.
“Hotels and coffee shops tell me they’ve seen a noticeable increase in Xinjiang traffic,” he wrote.
Urumqi residents have frequently reported being cut off from the outside world entirely, as the authorities block media and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Officials say terrorists, separatists, and religious extremists used the Internet, telephones, and mobile text messages to spread rumors and hatred during the ethnic violence, sparking one of the most comprehensive Internet shutdowns ever reported.
Clashes first erupted between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs on July 5. Twelve people have since been sentenced to death in connection with the violence, which was the worst the country has experienced in decades.
New York-based Human Rights Watch last week said it has documented the disappearances of 43 men and boys in the Xinjiang region, but that the actual number of disappearances is likely far higher.
Police have meanwhile detained more than 700 people in connection with the unrest, according to earlier state news reports.
Uyghurs, a distinct and mostly Muslim ethnic group, have long complained of religious, political, and cultural oppression by Chinese authorities, and tensions have simmered in the Xinjiang region for years.
Original reporting by RFA’s Uyghur service, and in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated by Jia Yuan. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.