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Behind China’s Cyber Curtain

Visiting the country's far reaches, where the government shut down the Internet

China Photos/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On the bus ride from Chengdu, the teeming capital of Sichuan Province, to Aba County in northern Sichuan, my cell phone signal flickered in and out. The ten-hour journey winds through some of China’s most dramatic landscapes, from conifer hills to sprawling red plains backdropped by snowy mountains—not exactly mobile-friendly terrain. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake made things worse, paralyzing phone networks that in some areas have been spotty ever since. But as we approached Aba County, something changed. I stopped getting messages on WeChat and QQ, China’s most popular mobile apps. My Instagram feed wouldn’t refresh. When I tried to load e-mail, an error occurred: “Could not authenticate cellular data network: PDP authentication failure.” I still had a signal—the little 3G icon was there and everything. But the signal didn’t seem to contain any data.

China is famous for its Great Firewall, an Internet censorship program designed to filter the results of politically sensitive search terms and block certain websites—Facebook and Twitter and The New York Times are all off-limits. But venture into Aba County, about 300 miles from the Tibetan border, and you encounter information control of a different order. Here, the government has taken the nuclear option and turned the Internet off altogether.

Aba was first stripped of its connection in 2008, after riots in Tibet led to unrest in this place known for its wide grasslands and Buddhist monasteries. Both mobile phone signals and the Web have been erratic ever since, coming back for months at a time only to disappear again, usually after a Tibetan monk sets him or herself on fire in protest. For example, the Internet returned last December and January and then, according to residents, disappeared again in February. With politically charged “incidents” occurring as recently as September, no one knows when—or if—the information blackout will end for good.

As our bus pulled into Aba station, I saw the usual hallmarks of a small Chinese town: a main drag lined with freshly painted three-story buildings, ornate yet cheap-looking hotels, hole-in the-wall dumpling shops, tractors everywhere. But there were also differences. Colorful prayer flags hung down from building facades, and signs were written in both Mandarin and Tibetan script, a reflection of the county’s 90 percent Tibetan population. A Chinese national flag flew from every lamppost, as if to remind us all where we were. Every twentieth vehicle or so was a police car.

Maybe a little more paranoid than necessary—but not a lot more—I put up my hoodie so as not to advertise my blond hair and big nose, and hopped into a three-wheeled vehicle to meet my host, a garrulous 22-year-old named Shuangquan Zou. Over tea, he told me that he arrived in Aba last year and found the transition jarring. He had missed some big announcements—his friends threw a huge graduation party without him, because he never saw the invitation—and had trouble keeping in touch. Relationships, he explained, become stratified by communications tools: There are close friends and family, whom you call; less intimate friends, whom you text; then still less intimate ones, whom you message on QQ or WeChat. Removing social media doesn’t mean you start texting and calling those less intimate friends. It just means you lose touch. The lack of Internet also affects how people hang out. From what I saw, group conversations almost never devolved into silent collective phone-staring sessions. But they were constantly interrupted by phone calls, which the receiver always answered.

When Zou’s roommate and colleague, a 26-year-old named Amula, arrived in Aba in August 2011 as a volunteer for China’s national “Go West” program, a massive development effort that’s also a training ground for civil servants, he knew there wouldn’t be any Internet. “I figured I could just read books all day,” he told me. But as time passed, the information vacuum became a nuisance. He relied on television and the local papers for his news. Though he didn’t feel like he missed any major stories, he knew he wasn’t getting the complete picture: “The TV propaganda is all positive. The Web has both positive and negative news.” And since he couldn’t log on, he missed a lot of Internet lingo that seeps into the culture. Phrases like hold zhu (to “hold steady”) and the English word out (to mean “out of it”), both of which went viral in 2011, he learned only later.

Illustration by Karol Banach

The list of irritants goes on. E-commerce is out, which means things like clothing and gadgets usually cost more. Tourists can’t access map functions, plus they’re forced to pay brutal long-distance charges for phone calls. If people want to see local news, they have to tune into the nightly broadcast; if they miss it, they miss it. Brain-wracking, tip-of-the-tongue attempts to recall the name of a movie or a song go unresolved. Even the sole remaining Internet café in Aba has no Internet, just some single-player video games and previously downloaded, not quite up-to-date movies. The result is a low current of Web-related gallows humor. One afternoon I visited the Lang Yi temple, where a well-traveled monk (he visited the United States three times before his passport was revoked) showed me around. After listening to an elaborate explanation of a painting of a Buddhist deity, I confessed I didn’t understand. “Look it up online,” he deadpanned.

That’s not to say there’s no Internet. There is—in government offices. At work, Amula and Zou now have full Web access: They can check e-mail, chat with friends, play games. It means they spend a lot more time at work than they need to. After dinner one evening, their colleague Li said he was going back to the office. I remarked at his diligence. “He’s going to play Defense of the Ancients,” Zou said.

My questions about the Internet elicited more non-answers than answers, but sometimes the non-answers were just as revealing. Lin Xiang, an Aba native I met in Chengdu, said he thinks the blockage has to do with the region’s remote location—an absurd statement, given that the Web has worked fine in the past. Yang Yunjian, a propaganda official in Ruoergai, a county near Aba where the Web is also censored, cited two reasons for the outage: the difficulty of installing Internet and its high cost. The real reason was obvious. He knew that I knew that he knew, but neither of us felt like we could mention it.

After a couple days offline, I really, really wanted to check my e-mail. I asked the owner of a computer store in Ruoergai if there was any way to log on. He suggested I try the police station across the street. I walked in to find three young cops sitting around staring at their phones. I asked if I could use their connection. One of them looked up: “For how long?” “I don’t know, five minutes?” I said. Another cop interrupted: “That’s not OK.” The first one again: “Sorry, we don’t have Internet.” It was also in Ruoergai that I saw the one working modem of my entire trip—in the county propaganda bureau.

The lack of Internet wouldn’t be such a problem if Aba and Ruoergai were content to remain isolated rural outposts. But that’s hardly the case. The southern end of Aba township, across the river, is a massive construction zone, with skeletal soon-to-be office buildings and sunny posters touting real estate opportunities. “DEVELOPMENT WILL ENRICH THE PEOPLE,” says one government message painted across a wall next to a hammer and sickle. In Ruoergai, I picked up a brochure boasting of the county’s prosperous, technology-driven future.

It’s hard to imagine any of that happening without Internet. Jinfan, a company selling office space and residential apartments in Aba, has hung banners around town soliciting tenants. But even they don’t have Internet, and anyone who buys space from them has to negotiate directly with the local government for Web access.

The long-term development question doesn’t seem to bother everyone. “It’s just temporary,” said Yang, the Ruoergai propaganda official. He couldn’t say when the Web would be back, but he suggested it would be soon. Several other people not employed by the government were equally optimistic. Even the town’s vestigial Web signage—a café advertising wireless, or the placard in a bus terminal stating, “THIS AREA RECEIVES CHINA MOBILE INTERNET COVERAGE”—could be considered expressions of hope. (A few weeks after my visit, broadband connections started working again in Aba, though you still can’t get data on your phone.) China’s whole “Go West” campaign is dedicated to developing these remote places. But that can only happen if there are open communications. Then again, maybe not. China never ceases to impress when it comes to stimulating the economy without relaxing its control on information.

On the bus back to Chengdu, I sat next to Zhu Zhijun, a young architect who said he was heading to the big city to hand-deliver a report to his bosses. After all, he couldn’t e-mail it. I joked that he must appreciate the Internet shutdown if it means he gets a free trip to Chengdu. “I’d rather have both,” he said. Eventually, as we approached the outskirts of the town of Songpan, I watched my e-mail inbox fill, and fill, and fill some more, gorging itself like a man who hasn’t eaten in days. It felt glorious. I messaged friends: “BACK IN INTERNETLAND.” I started liking Instagram photos I didn’t even like. I nudged Zhu: “It’s back!” He smiled, and started checking his QQ. We spent the rest of the ride fiddling with our phones in silence.

Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic.