Despite a Ban, Chinese Youth Navigate to Internet Cafes

Authorities are trying to keep students away from Internet cafes, where inappropriate Web sites are within reach and time and money are wasted.
Authorities are trying to keep students away from Internet cafes, where inappropriate Web sites are within reach and time and money are wasted. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 9, 2007

GEDONG, China -- There was no sign, but Gedong's teenagers knew the way. Down a dusty alley just off Jicui Park and a few minutes' walk from local schools, the curtained door beckoned. Inside, in a dingy back room off the kitchen, a clutch of adolescent boys crowded around six computers and stared at the images flickering on their screens.

For the equivalent of 35 cents an hour, the youths were playing computer games in an underground Internet cafe, one of a half-dozen information-age speak-easies in this little farming and coal-mining town in Shanxi province 220 miles southwest of Beijing. For those unable to afford their own computers -- the vast majority here -- going online in a clandestine dive has become the only option; the local Communist Party leader banned Internet cafes nine months ago as a bad influence on minors.

"If they dare to reopen, we might launch another campaign to shut them all down again," proclaimed Zhang Guobiao, party secretary for the surrounding Fangshan County.

Zhang's ban, which was reported by several Chinese newspapers, was regarded as extreme even by the censorship authorities in Beijing. But it was emblematic of the Communist Party's determination to retain control of what this country's 1.3 billion people see, hear and read despite the vast changes in other realms brought on by economic reform over the last two decades.

Ever since Mao Zedong brought the party to power in 1949, information, art and entertainment have been regarded here as government property, distributed to the public -- or not -- according to what party officials think best. But in recent years, as the number of online Chinese climbed to 137 million by the end of 2006, the Internet has challenged this power in many ways. Zhang's experience in Gedong dramatized how robust the challenge has become.

Eager to speed modernization, China's leaders have professed a desire to see people use the Web widely to seek knowledge and economic advantage. But they also have expressed determination to keep it under party control. The goal, they have said, is to keep Chinese away from sites deemed unfit because of pornographic or politically sensitive content -- or, in the case of Fangshan County, because they waste teenagers' time with frivolous games.

"Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information and the stability of the state," President Hu Jintao said at a Politburo study session last month, according to the state-controlled press. Hu, who also heads the party, said the solution is not to deter development of the Web but to "nurture a healthy online culture."

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media watchdog group, said Hu's government has deployed "armies of informants and cyber-police" and sophisticated computer programs to prevent Chinese Internet users from connecting with sites the party disapproves of or reading postings that stray from political orthodoxy. Sifting the acceptable from the unacceptable costs China "an enormous amount," the group said, without providing a specific number.

Hao Xianghong, secretary general of the China Youth Internet Association, an affiliate of the Communist Party Youth League, compared the party's Internet efforts to the Chinese people's millenary struggle to control the Yellow River. The proper technique, he said in an interview, is not to try stopping the water but to guide it in the right direction.

"If you just close down the Internet, you close off a window for Chinese youth to acquire knowledge and information," he added.

Zhang's concerns here in Fangshan County centered on the amount of time young people were spending on the Web and where they were doing it. But officials also expressed dismay that Gedong's teenagers were being lured away from their studies by violence-heavy computer games, many imported from Japan and the West. It was their job, they said, to protect local youth from such temptation.

Che Weimin, deputy director of the county information office, said a middle school student ignited Zhang's concerns last March by writing an anonymous letter confessing that he was addicted to computer games and asking for help.

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