URUMQI - For Ruzmammat, the Internet is a crucial way of keeping in touch with his Uighur friends in China`s Xinjiang region -- a lifeline that was denied to him for 10 months following deadly ethnic riots.
Authorities cut off the web in Xinjiang in the aftermath of violence that erupted a year ago in the regional capital Urumqi between mainly Muslim Uighurs and majority Han Chinese, leaving nearly 200 dead and 1,700 injured.
Access to dozens of websites, largely government-run or national web portals, was restored earlier this year, and most others came back on stream in May.
But three major portals used by Uighurs for news and discussion remain blocked -- a reality which is hindering efforts by members of the Turkic-speaking minority to preserve their culture, experts say.
"If something big happens outside (Urumqi), that`s how we communicate," said Ruzmammat, a 22-year-old web cafe employee in a mainly Uighur quarter of Urumqi, sitting at a computer as other men played games or chatted online.
"But we also use the sites for other stuff like finding jobs," he said.
Authorities accused Uighurs inside and outside China of using the Internet to orchestrate the unrest last year and analysts say foreign Uighur-language websites remain inaccessible in the region as a result.
Such sites are "important for Uighurs wishing to be in contact with each other and with the outside world, and for the propagation of the Uighur language and culture," said Michael Dillon, a Xinjiang expert based in Britain.
When the regional government announced the general restoration of Internet access in May, it warned that "anyone transmitting harmful information will be dealt with in accordance with the law".
According to Ilham Tohti, an outspoken Uighur professor and blogger who lives in Beijing, many people who operated Uighur websites "have been thrown in prison or have disappeared" since the July 2009 unrest.
The Chinese government has further upped the stakes by requiring many website operators to register their names and claim responsibility for their content, creating a climate of fear, he told AFP in an interview in Beijing.
"Under this situation, many people involved in websites face great obstacles and a lot of pressure," Tohti said.
He added that before the unrest in Urumqi, there had been a "lively" online discussion among Uighurs -- deemed crucial amid tight restrictions on other publications such as magazines -- but people were now scared to say much.
"With many websites closed, this has closed off our ability to debate, to exchange opinions," he said.
China has long maintained an extensive nationwide system of Internet censorship, known as the "Great Firewall", aimed at filtering out information deemed politically sensitive and harmful.
But the shutdown in Xinjiang went far beyond that. Paris-based media watchdog Reporters without Borders described it as the "longest ever case of government censorship of this kind".
The government also cut text messaging services and international phone calls over fears of more unrest, isolating Xinjiang even further. These were only restored in January.
Despite this, people in the region still found ways to communicate within Xinjiang and with the outside world, according to Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighurs at Pomona College in California.
"They cut mobiles off for a while, but people used landlines and public phones, and they also smuggled out videos and photos on memory sticks," he said.
"But it hurt the business people in the region and Han as well as Uighurs were very upset at being cut off because the Internet is so important for business."
Tohti said Xinjiang`s 20 million people, nine million of whom are Uighurs, had been stripped of a "vital" tool of information for nearly a year.
"Today`s world is inseparable from the Internet. Whether it is entertainment, news, education, research, social contact or business, the Internet is indispensable," he said.
BDST: 08.09 HRS, July 6, 2010