Ruth Ingram, The Guardian April 29th 2010
Students in Shanghai. Photograph: Don McPhee
Munira was on course to spend 25 years of her three score and 10 playing internet games and messaging her friends. That was until the 18-year-old was rescued by the shutdown of virtual Xinjiang after deadly riots last July caused, claims Beijing, by foreign manipulation of the internet.
YouTube scenes of atrocities committed on Uighur factory workers in eastern China by their Han colleagues spread around the world, fanning the flames of bitterness and fury among Uighurs everywhere and precipitating vengeance and retaliation on a murderous scale.
Beijing’s accusations that the whole thing had been stage-managed by malevolent splittists justified an indefinite crackdown on international calling, texting and the internet. Eight months of military occupation has calmed things down sufficiently for the government to revive restricted contact with the outside world, but the provincial capital, Urumqi, is still not back online.
The current manicured version of a once vibrant-ish internet could more accurately be described as cyber-surfing with “Chinese characteristics”. We’ve been without our umbilical cord to cyberspace since 5 July 2009.
But it’s not all bad news. For English teachers, the trail of plagiarised essays and meaningless word-for-word translations of texts has dried up completely. Students now have time to do their homework, and unable to secretively text beneath their desks my class are, unusually, glued to my every word.
But how the new generation of Uighur youth would cope without access to the rest of the world and international news was anybody’s guess.
As students exchanged experiences, they began to realise they had become addicted. Looking back over the last eight months they realised that they have rediscovered face-to-face friendships, real books and films on the big screen. Groups have even ventured to the mountains and become aware of a world of beauty and fresh air that they had only ever read about online. More time with parents has had pros and cons, but is not without gains on both sides.
Munira and her like, though, are enjoying a renaissance of real life, and deep friendships that will heal a city that was torn apart so viciously last July.