July 18th, 2002, 06:32 PM
funny what we take for granted...
After a deadly fire in an illegal Internet hangout, Beijing declares war against online fun factories
BY HANNAH BEECH/SHANGHAI
Going Offline: Police raid an illegal cybercafe as part of a nationwide crackdown
Chen used to let his evenings unfold in the corners of Shanghai's cheapest bars. He was content with his Sprite-and-beer shandies and a stack of car magazines to keep him company. But last September, the 20-year-old engineering major decided to break with routine. He bypassed his usual watering hole and climbed a narrow staircase to a windowless room. There, too, the men were sitting alone, obscured by clouds of cheap cigarette smoke. Chen had found a new hangout. In late May, he spent 32 hours straight in the illegal Internet café, working his way through six packs of Double Happiness cigarettes and relieving himself in a bucket by the stairs. "When our parents were young, they spent their spare time in Communist Youth League meetings," says Chen, eyelids puffy from lack of sleep. "We fill our emptiness by living in another world."
Beijing has declared war on Chen's world. Last week, authorities kicked off a nationwide crackdown against China's estimated 150,000 unlicensed Internet cafés, comparing them to opium dens where young men slowly destroyed themselves a century ago. In mid-June, 25 people were killed when a pair of teens torched a Beijing cybercafé that had refused them entry. It was the capital's deadliest fire in decades. The central government used the blaze as an excuse to order the closure of thousands of illegal Internet outlets over the next two months, threatening the owners with prosecution.
The government has for several years staged periodic cybercafé raids, usually on the grounds that online pornography and violent, addictive computer games are a moral hazard to the nation's youth. But psychological and safety considerations are only a small part of the campaign to shut down what is, for many Chinese, the main artery to the Internet. Control-crazy officials are struggling to monitor an information-packed online world that by its very name, the Web, is a tangle of unmanageable links to "cultural pollution." Since 2000, the number of Internet users in China has quadrupled to 38.5 million. "The Internet is a double-edged sword for China," says Ted Dean, managing director of BDA China, a telecom-analysis firm in Beijing. "The government needs to figure out the right balance between supporting a lucrative digital economy and controlling all that free and dangerous information."
In truth, most of the mainland kids crowding around computers aren't there to upload dissident manifestos or pages from, say, TIME, whose website is blocked in China. They're logging on to find fun. Near Shanghai's prestigious Jiaotong University, a student only pauses his online game—World Karate Domination Antics III—to upload a picture sent by a cyberbuddy. It's an image of a pouting, naked redheaded girl. He shakes his head. "I don't like funny-haired foreigners." Another picture streams in, this one of a Chinese teen. The café owner leans in and nods approvingly: "That's the best one we've seen all day."
What bothers Beijing most is that illicit gathering places exist at all. There are about 46,000 licensed Internet cafés in China, and all are required to monitor their customers by watching over their shoulders and blocking blacklisted Web pages. Although the Public Security Bureau has deployed a young corps of Internet police to block offending websites, there's no way a few hundred officers can filter all the pages on the Web and maintain blocks that stymie surfers for long. But the Internet police keep trying. According to the Hong Kong Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, Beijing recently ordered all Internet cafés to install software that immediately alerts one of the Public Security Bureau's Internet Café Information Security Control Centers when a surfer links to a "reactionary" website.
But only a tiny minority of China's cybercafés is playing by the rules. Since the hourly charge is less than 50 cents at the priciest Shanghai outlets, city dwellers vow to keep surfing. "Coming to an Internet bar is cheaper than karaoke or a pub or a disco," says Zhang Guoming, a 34-year-old cybercafé owner in Shanghai. "There's less harm in it than going elsewhere. Why are they trying to close us down?"
For Chen, the solution is clear. "No matter how many cafés you try to close, new ones will always appear," he says. "The government should just accept that the Internet is here to stay." Then Chen gets back to interacting with his avatar, a 19th century warlord. And the name of Chen's online alter ego? "The Opium Smoker."
freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude
freedom aint free
July 18th, 2002, 06:48 PM
While here in the "Land of the Free" we gradually relinquish our rights and privileges in the quest for increased security.
July 23rd, 2002, 02:34 PM
I would like to see a boom of this type of business in the US. In connecticut we have LAM gaming arenas, but I would like to see cyber coffee houses, or cyber bars etc, but then again everyone looks at us as reckless individuals. That would cost to much "having kids spill coffee on the systems, a fight break out at a car, and the computer gets destroyed". If I had the moeny, I would open a Cyber Cafe'. I think it would be a great move around a college or heavily polulated business section...
July 23rd, 2002, 04:12 PM
And yet people in America still sometimes complain about what they have.