The Internet Cafes of Fangshan

(Democracy and Law Times)  Fangshan County Party Secretary Shuts Down Internet Cafes.  By Zhou Yu.  October 15, 2006.

On October 8, Democracy and Law Times reported that all the Internet cafes in Fangshan County (Shanxi province) had been shut down, and this led to a big discussion on the Internet about whether to keep or ban Internet cafes.  The China Youth Internet Association secretary Hao Xianghong said: "Shutting down the Internet cafes means shutting down the channel through which the youth sees the world and learns advanced technology."  But other scholars who supported the shutdown said: "The Internet cafes are not places where the youth learn Internet skills!"

"Fangshan is hot ... because it is the first in the country to shut down all Internet cafes."  On October 9, former Fangshan Internet cafe owner Liu Jingqi's former partner Gou Liming wrote these excited words on his blog.  As soon as the blog post appeared, it collected more than 200,000 viewings.

After Democracy and Law Times published the report titled "Fangshan county party secretary applies iron fists to Internet cafes," Fangshan and its party secretary became the center of attention.  Local media from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Taiyuan rushed to Fangshan and sought out information in this lovely county city.  "This was no big deal in Fangshan," said director Xiao of the Fangshan County Information Office: "The people of Fangshan support the shutdown.  We are perplexed.  This was just a shutdown in accordance with the law.  Why are so many national media organizations here?"

For Fangshan, the controversy was unexpected.  But the unexpected controversy brought out two closely connected and important standing questions: How much risk do Internet cafes pose to young people?  How to run healthy Internet cafes and supervise them effectively?  An authoritative source pointed out that the Chinese Internet cafes are not where young people learn about Internet technology, and operating the Internet cafes in accordance with the law is the only way to go.

"This is a classical case of lazy governance!"  When the news of the Internet cafe shutdown reached the Internet, some netizens had doubts about the governing ability of the local government.  But some Fangshan supporters cheered the action: "We need cadres who can enforce the law strictly."

"This is like going on starvation in order to avoid choking."  Some netizens thought that just as we do not ban cars because they create traffic accidents, we cannot shut down Internet cafes because they may damage youth people.  The voices of opposition said: "Is there anything else more important for the future of the motherland?  Internet cafes are basically the same as the electronic games before.  We don't need a discussion by everybody in order to close them down.  The government ought to do something about this problem."

The RedNet discussion said "the shutdown of Internet cafes in the county" is the necessary price for enforcing the law.  This is about the rule of law in which illegal activities must be stopped.  This is also the prelude to having legal Internet cafes.  Very quickly, the term "Iron First Secretary" became the synonym of the person in the center of the incident, Fangshan county party secretary Zhang Guobiao.  Obviously, he did not anticipate that shutting down the Internet cafes would create such a storm.  When he learned that the national media were coming to Fangshan to interview him, Zhang's first reaction was: "Can the media not come?"

While there were still more criticisms on the Internet afterwards, most of those departed from or distorted the actual situation in Fangshan.  Former Internet cafe owner Gou Laiming had to dispel the rumors on the Internet: "Right now, the whole county has their eyes on our Fangshan.  Everybody is saying that the Internet cafes should not be shut down.  I want to tell everybody -- no Internet cafe in Fangshan has completed all the application steps!"

While doubting and supporting, the people are watching how Fangshan is reacting.  "If the local people support us, we can do this!"  Zhang Guobiao was quite open: "I believe all along that I am doing the right thing.  Governance is about seeing whether the people are satisfied and supportive.  We never said that we would not permit Internet cafes.  We are just not letting them operate illegally!"

"The Internet poses as much danger to young people as illegal narcotics.  If this was to continue, the danger would be great here as well as in all of China."  Zhang Guobiao said, "As for those who oppose this, I would not pay them any attention.  No Internet cafe owner is going to tell me: 'Internet cafes pose no danger to children!'"

"The voices of opposition on the Internet misunderstood us.  We are just strictly enforcing the law and not applying a knife."  Fangshan county party office director Gao Yunlin explained, "Our policy is that we will strictly eliminate the illegal and  we support the legal, and we will supervise closely."  During the controversy, renowned Internet addiction expert professor Gao Hongke was a firm supporter of Zhang Guobiao.

"What we need is the kind of party secretary who will adhere strictly to the law in the right places and who is genuinely concerned about education and youth."  Tao Hongke said, "The important point of emphasis is that not having Internet cafes does not mean not having the Internet.  Legally shutting down the Internet cafes does not meaning not wanting to have the Internet.  Please do not tie the Internet to the Internet cafes."

Yet the voices of opposition are still very strong.  As of 17:13, October 10, the survey showed that the pro and con sides had 48.8% of the votes apiece, with 2.4% being neutral.  "The voices of opposition are mostly not looking at this by considering the children.  A professor who has been researching computer education for young people Ling Yun (pseudonym) said, "They obviously do not represent the majority opinion of the people.  I support Fangshan shutting down the Internet cafes in accordance with the law."

During the news gathering process, the reporter found out that the Fangshan law enforcement actions were supported by many scholars, government officials and legal Internet cafe owners, and this is different from the Internet opinions.  The key point of contention in the practical debate is: How much influence do Internet cafes have on young people?  "Internet cafes are not places where young people learn about Internet technology!"  

"I find what Fangshan did to be regrettable."  Party Central Internet Video Center deputy director and China Youth Internet Association secretary-general Hao Xianghong told our reporter.  "This seems to have temporarily protected the interests of the children, but they have been excluded from the latest science and technology.  At the moment, it is an international standard to use Internet access by young people as an index for national development potential.  The Internet penetration in the less developed parts of our country is less than in Africa.  With this background, we do not want to see the situation in Fangshan."  

"We do not want to shut down the Internet cafes.  We want to make the Internet cafes to be places to learn about popular scientific knowledge and experience contemporary entertainment," said professor Ling Yun.  

Hou Xianghong believes that shutting down the Internet cafes is also shutting down the channel through which our young people can see the world and learn advanced technology.  "At the same time, the debate and conflicts showed that there is a vast gap between the contents that we provide and the developmental needs of our young people."  Hao Xianghong said, "We need to find a point of balance so that the young people can enjoy the convenience of the Internet without suffering any bad influence.  Then it becomes win-win."  

Professor Ling Yun disagrees: "I don't think that shutting down the Internet cafes is equivalent to shutting down the path by which young people learn new technology.  I cannot accept that reasoning. Most schools will teach technology under normal circumstances.  They are trying hard to provide educational knowledge on computers and Internet to middle- and elementary-school students."  In many schools, the children experience the Internet in the first year of elementary school.  After a lot of exposure, the children become less obsessed with the Internet and their interest in online games is much less than those young people who encountered the Internet without proper guidance.

"The children learn through trial and experiment.  They will be interested in what they encounter first.  We cannot let the children come into contact with violent games first and then become addicted.  We need to provide healthy substitutes and then provide proper guidance to the children in healthy environments for their initial exposure to the Internet."

In November 2005, the youth online game addiction study from the China Youth Internet Association showed that 13.2% of Chinese Internet youth are addicted to the Internet.  The study showed that the Internet addicts are principally involved in online games, and this addiction is the reason why Chinese Internet cafes are so often castigated.

"Young people absolutely do not learn new technology or improve the quality of their information at Internet cafes.  Improving the quality of information involves the ability to search, add value, judge, apply and distinguish.  This is so far removed from the environment and actual experience at Internet cafes!  Bill Gates was not nurtured in an Internet cafe in China," said Professor Ling Yun.  Purely commercial Internet cafes should not accommodate young children.  The profits for such Internet cafes come from letting the children play as long as possible.  Some Internet cafe owners even provide beds and instant noodles to the children.  They are obviously not thinking on behalf of the children.

Commercial Internet cafes offer mainly games and chat.  The survey showed that Internet chat provide very obvious bad influence on children who are in grade five or higher.  The online games are mostly about violence and fantasy, and have nothing to do with learning and intellectual development.  "The Internet cafes are not where young people learn about Internet technology!"

In the ensuing interviews, many local government officials have thorough understanding about the dangers of the Internet cafes just like the scholars.  They have done various things to manage the Internet cafes, but often with difficulty, ineffectiveness plus a lot of criticisms.  "Handling the Internet cafes in accordance with the law is the only way to go in China."  

"We are prepared to go and inspect Shanxi to see the actual results of the Fangshan actions, and then we will decide," said Chibi (Hubei) mayor Wang Mingde to our reporter.  "Chibi has spent a lot of effort in dealing with the Internet cafes, but the results are unsatisfactory," Wang Mingde said frankly.  In 2004, the city also shut down all the Internet cafes and that caused a great controversy.  The Wuxi City party committee deputy secretary Zhou Jiaqing also told us that Wuxi attempted to stop the maximum hours of access by periodically stopping the Internet cafe connections.  "This is a solution that is a non-solution," said Zhou Jiaqing.  "This was a step against the profit-driven Internet cafe owners and the addictive behavior of minors."

"If the Internet cafes can enforce the existing regulations, we would not need to employ such measures.  But this is not happening."  Zhou Jiaqing said, "From the rules of economics, this is not a solution.  But we can only continue to keep doing this."  "It is very difficult to manage, even though we have taken many steps.  We have basically not solved the problem as of now," said Shaoyang city deputy mayor Li Lanjun to our reporter.

Shaoyang city established an inspection team.  As soon as they receive a telephone call of a minor being at an Internet cafe, the team will inspect immediately.  "I personally don't feel that this has solved the problem completely," said deputy city Li Lanjun.  "Under the present system, we are only reacting."  "Penalties do not solve the problem," said Li Lanjun.  "After paying the fine, the Internet cafe will only try harder to attract young people in order to make up for the loss."

For lack of more effective measures, Shaoyang is organizing something new: they will require children to wear school uniforms between Monday and Friday.  This will make it harder for children to enter Internet cafes.  "The only way out is to supervise the Internet cafes in accordance with the law, "said professor Tao Hongke.  "Under the present circumstances, I think the better way to manage the Internet cafes is to apply the iron fist."

Previously, professor Tao had spoken to various officials responsible for Internet cafe supervision during his nationwide tour on Internet addiction.  During our news gathering process, two key terms were repeatedly invoked by government officials, experts and Internet cafe owners: one is "public interest" and the other is "franchising."

"Let us talking about an Internet cafe for the public interest.  The city encourages green Internet centers in the streets.  The libraries in Wuxi city are doing that.  We feel that we have to provide outlets for the children to go to," said Wuxi city deputy mayor Zhou Jiaqing.  "Adults and young people should have strictly segregated areas of Internet access," said professor Ling Yun.  This viewpoint is consistent with our current ban of minors at commercial Internet cafes.

"The children should get on the Internet cafes organized by specially designated organizations instead of purely commercial operations, because this affects our next generation."  Professor Ling Yun recommends: "First, the schools ought to prove the venues.  Then the cultural and especially the education departments ought to assume the responsibility, such as seriously managing the Internet cafes.  The adults can go to the commercial Internet cafes.  That will be easier to manage."

"In the long term, the development of Internet cafes will still be based upon enterprises.  There will be franchises operated by large corporations."  Zhou Jiaqing said, "We considered shutting down the Internet cafes and then the higher-level department can expand the better Internet cafes through franchising."

"For Internet cafe franchises, the cost of breaking the rules is much higher than individual Internet cafes.  The Shanxi province Cultural Department has refused to approve individual Internet cafes since 2004."  The largest Shanxi green Internet bar franchise owner Lai Bin said, "We are trying to obtain diversified mainstream information services.  We are not trying to attract minors."

Lai Bin is solidly supporting the Internet cafe ban in Fangshan.  In his eyes, the strong-willed shutdown of illegal Internet cafes is the first step towards the healthy development of the Internet cafe industry.  "The cost of breaking the regulations is low for an individual Internet cafe, and that is why it is normal for them to let minors come in."

"When Fangshan only had three Internet cafes, business was good.  At that time, we seldom let minors come in."  Gou Laiming was one of the earliest people to operate an Internet cafe in Fangshan.  "Later on, there was one new Internet cafe in Fangshan every three months.  These Internet cafes did not have all the permits.  There was not enough business for everyone, and that was why they tried very hard to attract the minors."

In the eyes of Liu Jingqi and Gou Laiming, the unrestricted development of the illegal Internet cafes is the cause for the shutdown of all the Internet cafes -- the population of Fangshan can only support one or two Internet cafes.  With respect to the future, party secretary Zhang Guobiao said that he has not yet considered the issue of re-opening the Internet cafes.  Another Fangshan official told us that Zhang is actually worried about whether an adult-only Internet cafe can survive in Fangshan.  After all, this is a county city of less than 30,000 people.  Actually, Fangshan has considered bringing in a green Internet cafe with a complete monitoring system.

No matter whether Fangshan will re-open Internet cafes in some form or ban them outright, this discussion initiated by Fangshan will continue.  Will the discussion lead to a new type of management system, will Fangshan become the place where Internet cafe management finds a solution and will "Iron Fist" secretary Zhang Guobiao be the person to solve the problem?  The people wait and see.

(Washington Post)  Despite a Ban, Chinese Youth Navigate to Internet Cafes.  By Edward Cody.  February 9, 2007.

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 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."