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.
"A friend of mine took me to an Internet cafe and I then got addicted," the letter said, according to a copy released by Fangshan authorities. "Every day I went to an Internet cafe to play computer games, watch movies and chat with friends. I had to steal money from my parents to pay the fee. . . . I now realize I am wrong and I clearly recognize the hazards of Internet cafes."
Zhang responded the same day by touring the eight Internet cafes then known to be operating in Dedong, the county seat with about 20,000 of Fangshan's 150,000 residents. Six of the eight were near the elementary and middle schools that sit on either side of Jicui Park, Che said.
"Secretary Zhang found the situation was not healthy," Che added. "He found the cafes were so dirty, and also that they were full of young people below the age of 18."
At the same time, a lower-ranking official on the county Communist Party committee, Gao Yunlin, discovered that his son was spending a lot of time in Internet cafes, to the detriment of his studies. The official posted his son's picture in Gedong's cafes and asked managers not to let his son get online, Che recounted.
Zhang, contacted by telephone, defended his decision but declined to be interviewed in person. He professed not to know that a number of clandestine Internet cafes had opened since his ban was imposed. "If you find any open, you may report them to the county Industry and Commerce Administration," he said.
In an earlier conversation with the Democracy and Legal Times newspaper, Zhang said he finally acted in May after receiving a number of complaints from parents who said their children were wasting time in the Internet cafes, neglecting their studies and spending all their lunch money on game-playing.
"Whenever people talked about Internet cafes, they got crazy," Zhang told the paper. "We came to a conclusion: Internet cafes bring more bad than good to young people. So we decided to shut them down. The harm to children is no less than from drugs."
To carry out his decree, Zhang relied on regulations requiring that establishments such as Internet cafes be certified by local authorities. The certification usually concerns fire safety, hygiene, opening hours and compliance with a national law barring youths under 18 -- rules that were routinely violated by the cafe owners and their informal operations, Che said.
In random conversations around Gedong, parents expressed strong support for Zhang's ban, even nine months later. The town's teenagers were wasting too much time in endless sessions at the keyboard until Zhang cracked down, they said.
"I think more than 90 percent of middle school students were going to those Internet cafes," said Guo Mei, 32, a mother waiting for classes to let out at the elementary school. "They all play games. They don't study well because they spend so much time on the computer. Those Internet cafes were having such a negative effect that the authorities' decision to shut them down was absolutely right."
Xue Fayu, 38, said he was delighted to see the cafes banned because they were operating without proper safety inspections and were closing their doors to avoid notice by police, endangering the lives of the youngsters inside.
"And pornography was a big issue, too," Xue added. "My son is a middle school student, and I discovered he had visited many pornographic Web sites."
Tian Puma, who runs an Internet cafe in his apartment, said he knows a lot of Gedong residents who disagree. But most seemed to be the adolescent boys who patronize his shop and the other computer speak-easies around town.
"The party secretary of this town has no idea of what the Internet is," sneered a teenage boy outside another underground cafe, this one a large establishment in a courtyard next to a bicycle shop.
In a national online survey taken after the controversy erupted among Internet users across the country, the Sina.com Web site found support and opposition about equal at 48 percent of those questioned.
In any case, adolescents walking the coal-dusted streets of Gedong last week seemed to have little doubt where to go when they want to get online. "In less than a month after the ban, the Internet cafes all reopened," said Cheng Qiong, 15, a second-year middle school student.
Cheng, a girl, added that most of the cafes' customers are boys who sign on only to play computer games. Visits to several underground cafes showed only a sprinkling of girls at the keyboards, most of them on chat sites.
Liu Haidong, who manages the large courtyard cafe, said it is busy from the time it opens at 7 a.m. until it closes at midnight. One recent day, it was crowded with more than 50 people staring at computer screens. Except for one middle-aged man viewing statistics, all were adolescents playing computer games.
Asked how he escapes enforcement of the ban, Liu smiled, wiggled uncomfortably in his seat and said, "Well, that's kind of hard to explain." Pushed, he said the secret is "relationships" between the owner and the police.
Che said Fangshan has tried cutting off broadband connections, but the cafes responded by hooking up again over telephone lines. If the cafes are reopening and luring young people to spend hours in front of the screen, he warned, another campaign will be undertaken to close them down again.
Over a steaming bowl of thick-cut Shanxi noodles, he asked a reporter to disclose the locations of those operating again so police could close them. Backed by strong support among Gedong's parents, Zhang, who has been called the "iron-fisted party secretary," is determined to keep the cafes closed, he said.
Meanwhile, the local middle school offers classes on how to use a computer properly. The students are taught to operate the computer and keyboard, Che explained, but are not allowed to get online from school.
Fangshan County was not China's first jurisdiction to take radical steps against Internet cafes. Shaoyang, in central Hunan province, recently announced it would require students to wear uniforms so under-18 youths could be spotted easily if they entered an Internet cafe.
Shanghai has tried another approach. Hao, of the Communist Youth League's Internet association, said 268 community computer centers have been set up there to give young people free and easy access to Web sites with "healthy content."
"You can't just block the river's flow," he said, continuing the comparison to the Yellow River. "You have to let the water out. The same is true of the Internet."
Staff researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.