Net can be tolerated or turned off, not tamed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2009, 12:00am

Business is booming in Dunhuang, a historic desert town in western Gansu province . But the visitors packing out its hotels and coffee shops aren't tourists, but businesspeople from nearby Xinjiang. With internet access across that province still cut off after the July riots in Urumqi, Dunhuang is now the closest place to Xinjiang to get online.

Beijing claims that the July disturbances were partly organised over the internet and fears further trouble, which is why, four months later, Xinjiang's 20 million residents remain unable to check their e-mail. Uygur exiles have denied using the Net to instigate the riots, pointing out that Beijing is quick to shut down any website or chat room that might be promoting sedition.

But amid rumours that internet access will not be restored until after the Lunar New Year, Urumqi's business community is getting used to the commute to Dunhuang. Nor is Xinjiang the only place that is currently internet-free. It emerged last month that officials in Guanxian county, Shandong province , had shut down all internet cafes in the county, supposedly because too many children were skipping lessons to play computer games. 'Our purpose is to improve the quality of life for local residents,' a local official said of the ban.

Only on the mainland would the government claim that preventing people from using the internet is making their lives better. In the West, the opposite is true, because freedom of information is regarded as a basic right.

This, though, has been a bad year for the mainland's 338 million internet users. These days, anything connected to Tibetan or Xinjiang independence, or human rights or democracy advocates, is blocked. Networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are inaccessible because the authorities fear they could be used to organise protests against the Communist Party.

Blaming the internet for the rise of dissent on the mainland is as futile as shutting down internet cafes because teenagers are skipping school to play World of Warcraft. It is a reflection of poor parenting, rather than of the insidious nature of the Web. Blocking internet access in Xinjiang, and social networking sites everywhere, because people are allegedly using them to challenge the authorities, is like holding the water company responsible when you forget to turn off your taps.

The Xinjiang internet ban signals a new desperation on the part of Beijing. It's an acknowledgment that officials have failed to tame the Net, despite the estimated 40,000 people paid to monitor it and to plant pro-communist-party comments in chat rooms. Now, Beijing has boxed itself into a corner where, having failed to control the internet, its only option is to shut it down completely.

Only a real optimist would suggest that the Xinjiang internet shutdown might lead to a reappraisal of the way the mainland controls information. Beijing faces a stark choice; either allow access to the internet, or close it down. And with hundreds of millions of people dependent on the Net more than ever for work and play, preventing them using it will create far bigger protests than were seen in Xinjiang.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist