China's leaders are launching a nationwide crackdown on unregistered Internet cafes, following a fire on Sunday that killed 24 people in Beijing. But as police move to shutter as many as 2,400 cafes in the nation's capital, young Chinese are asking why the government fears the free flow of information.
"In China, there are so few sources of information for ordinary people. Why is the government limiting the expansion of Internet bars? Do they want to block us from getting ahold of knowledge?"' asks one Web user, signing on as "The Angry One."
Just a week earlier, the People's Daily was boasting how China had surpassed Japan with an Internet population of 56 million, second only to the United States, with its 156 million users. But as the number of users in China has skyrocketed, so have the demands on regulating authorities. For the past three years, the Communist Party has been trying to find effective ways to monitor what people are writing or reading without intimidating the youthful entrepreneurs who have started up China's more than 200,000 cafes or 250,000 websites.
But the postfire crackdown is just the latest salvo in an ongoing struggle between the government and the Internet. China shut 2,000 cafes and suspended another 6,000 last year. The businesses could reopen only after proving that their policies were in line with those of the many state agencies that regulate cyberspace.
The regulations are prompted by the freedom and security of online information. Using the cloak of anonymity provided by the Internet, youths have been logging on to criticize the government's controls and question its motives. In response, the government has mounted a big publicity campaign to justify its new controls, saying China's young people are becoming addicted to "online heroin."
Internet cafe owners, however, blame the fire on the government, which they say has driven them underground and into unsafe conditions by overregulation.
"My Internet bar opened half a year ago," says one owner. "I invested half a million RMB [$60,000] in it, spent a lot money rewiring it and making a fire exit, but the process to get the legal licenses was endless."
He had to get permits from four separate ministries but he now faces indefinite closure.
Most of the city's illegal Internet bars are typically frequented by students. Dingy, 24-hour halls with blocked-up windows, they often have only a single exit to minimize detection by the police.
As a result, fires are often fatal but fire-safety standards are equally lax in other privately run entertainment centers such as cinemas, video parlors, hotels, and discos.
Although Sunday's terrible blaze gave Beijing's Mayor Liu Qi justification to launch the crackdown to enforce proper safety regulations, the campaign comes hard on the heels of increasingly desperate efforts to bring the new medium under tight control.
In April, the Ministry of Public Security held a conference on national surveillance which decided to "clean up the Internet environment" before the 16th Party Congress this fall.
China's security chiefs called for fresh efforts to detect suspects, especially "hostile foreign forces" who allegedly threaten the country's information security and aim to "subvert China through the Internet."
China's Communist Party loves to import the latest technology as quickly as possible but has been unpleasantly surprised by how dissident groups like the Falun Gong have used encrypted e-mails and mobile phones to organize themselves into hard-to-break cells.
In the pursuit of such dissidents, the government has slapped cafes with tough regulations. To operate cafes, owners have to install monitoring software to enable police to track what websites have been browsed on public computers. Owners of registered cafes report that the police come once or twice a month to make checks.
Internet cafes are also forbidden within 600 feet of primary and secondary schools, and government, Communist Party, and military offices and installations.
China originally tried to erect a firewall against the outside world and establish what was really a giant, national Intranet a closed system with only tightly controlled gateways to the outside world.
When this seemed unachievable, it began hungrily importing software and high-capacity computers to allow the state to monitor the huge flow of e-mails and the proliferation of websites.
Two years ago, it introduced sweeping Internet regulations restricting foreign investment in Internet content providers and requiring websites to maintain highly detailed records that must be turned over to the police on demand.
"We cannot neglect the influence of the Internet on teenagers' growth and social development," information industry minister Wu Jichuan was quoted as saying at the time.
Not only do Internet content providers have to register with the Chinese government, they must keep detailed records of what they publish.
Companies are also required to "record the times users log on to the Internet, users' account numbers, Internet addresses or domain names and the phone numbers users dial in from."
These records are to be maintained for 60 days and are to be turned over to the government upon request. The new regulations effectively limit what content can be made available to the public.
Beijing also bans any content that "harms the reputation of China," or that could be classified as "disrupting social stability." The regulations prohibit content that is "harmful to ethnic unity" and that will hurt the country's efforts to assert sovereignty over Taiwan.
In practice, the Ministry of Security has found it hard to track down dissent through the cyber cafes. Even if a digital trail from an illegal message leads to a computer, the venues hook up numerous computers to the same Internet connection and a single IP address.