When two large security vans pulled up last Thursday afternoon around lunchtime, the Flying Universe Internet cafe complex was packed as usual. Students from the adjacent Beijing University were huddled around more than 500 computer terminals, eating roasted sweet potatoes and checking their e-mail.
At 1:20 p.m., blue-suited police burst into the cafe, quickly clearing it. Moments later, a cadre of the new "Internet police" entered and began checking terminals.
Such raids are not uncommon in China's cities. But this one, filmed by a television crew, seemed designed to underscore Internet regulations announced in October. In part, the rules state that companies providing Internet access must "record the times users log on to the Internet, users' account numbers, Internet address or domain names, and the phone numbers users dial."
The police found that 3 out of every 10 computers checked in the raid had evidence of objectionable pictures, visits to outlawed Web sites, or "statements that could harm the stability of China," one officer told a Chinese journalist at the cafe.
"Do you know how to keep track of everything?" the frightened deputy manager of the cafe asked a reporter. "I don't. We try. But no one has told us how to do this."
But less than three hours later, the police are gone and the Flying Universe is packed again, as if nothing had happened.
The before-and-after portrait of the Beijing cafe highlights the challenge of governments everywhere trying to police use of the Internet. In Britain, police and intelligence services are raising privacy issues by seeking the right to access records of every telephone call, e-mail, and Internet connection made in the United Kingdom. In France, a judge on Nov. 20 ordered Yahoo to prevent French citizens from accessing its auction sites selling Nazi memorabilia.
"This police action is useless, meaningless," says a software salesman at a tearoom next door to the Flying Universe during the raid. "The Internet is a very free place. You can't stop it. Anyone here can just go home and use the computer, or use their office computer."
Internet use continues to explode among the 300 million urban Chinese - doubling every six months by some estimates. Sofu.com, China's largest server, claims 20 million users interacting with information sources and changing the traditional top-down nature of discourse and business here.
For official China, it is an ongoing story of attempts to rein in an Internet genie that is already out of the bottle, sources say.
What average Westerners don't understand, says Charles Zhang, chief executive of Sofu.com, is how different an experience working online is for the Chinese. "The Internet means more to us than it does to the average Westerner," says Dr. Zhang, who carries a backpack and wears sneakers to his plush, 550-employee corporate office, located on a skyscraper-studded street that 10 years ago was farmland. "It is ... very liberating to us.... We used to have only a few information sources, now we have an abundance. People are thirsty for it."
Still, the Chinese government wants to keep the Internet explosion a controlled one. The sweeping Oct. 1 regulations, for example, provide the first rules for Internet service providers. They require ISPs to register and win approval from the Ministry of Information and Industry, to agree to police searches, and block content and ideas that are deemed illegal.
The regulations first sent a chill through foreign companies. Executives wondered if holdings in Chinese servers would make them liable. They wondered if their own Web sites, computers, or employees were prosecutable for Web content. The multinationals contacted for this article said no ministry officials had been in touch with them. Nor had they changed their procedures or registered under the new rules.
"For us, the regulations are extremely ambiguous, particularly the language. We were worried," says Patrick Horgan, the information-technology (IT) director of APCO China, a Western-based public affairs company. "But it now seems foreign companies are not liable. The target of the regs are Chinese companies."
It seems so. For Beijing firms like Sohu, the new mandate was quite clear. Since October, Sohu has employed more than 50 new "editorial workers" who monitor the chat rooms and bulletin boards on its site.
Still, some leeway exists for Chinese content controllers. For example, while unapproved news is technically illegal - the definitions of "news" are becoming sharper. When asked about a hypothetical case of "elections in Denmark," Zhang said it was likely such a story could be published - "so long as there wasn't a China angle, or sensitive issues like Denmark's relations with NATO."
Yet while the October regulations may seem draconian to Westerners, a debate had arisen in Beijing about whether they are helpful or harmful.
To those like Zhang, the restrictions are an attempt by Communist Party moderates to preempt a larger punitive backlash by conservatives. A crackdown could come quickly - if unwanted social views, behaviors, or attitudes were blamed on the Internet, he says.
Such views are not uncommon among IT leaders here. Many feel it is reasonable to clamp down on 5 percent of the illegal Internet content - to keep the 95 percent allowable material easily available. "The government is going for the middle path. That's what we understand," Zhang says. "We are trying to be responsible citizens. We want to be around in 20 years for what will be a different and better China, but one that is still familiar. We don't want to ruin the progress already made."
Others aren't so sanguine. "That's fine for Zhang to say," says one Chinese IT guru. "He's sitting on the biggest server. The fact is, we could see harsher measures. No one knows. We have to wait and see."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society