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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
China's net generation
Young Chinese people surf the net
Internet cafes are very popular with young people
By Duncan Hewitt in Shanghai

It is 2300 in a dimly lit room above a dumpling shop in an old Shanghai side street.

The rattle of the electric fan mixes with the clatter of keyboards. This is one of China's many internet bars.

China gets online
2001: 26.5 million internet users
Up 300% from 8.9 million in 1999
53% are aged 18-30
39% are women
One-third of use is for leisure
68% have never made an online purchase
Seventeen-year-old Ah Ying has been here for hours playing computer games and smoking, while his friend flirts with someone called "Lovely Girl" in an internet chat room.

"Sometimes we stay from early morning until late at night," he says. "It's not expensive."

For China's young generation, the internet is offering unprecedented opportunities for contact with the outside world and access to information. And since home computers are still relatively rare, more than 50,000 internet cafes have sprung up to meet the demand.

Some, like this one, are open 24 hours a day. The biggest is said to have more than 1,000 computers.

Subversive information

But such rapid development has unnerved the authorities. This cafe survived the national check-up, its owner says. But others in Shanghai were not so lucky.

"They were all downloading pornography," says the owner. "We were checked too. But we don't do that."

Laptop advert
E-commerce is increasingly visible in Chinese cities
Officials at Shanghai's education department insist the clean-up is to protect the young.

Yang Yongming, who is in charge of youth protection, said: "Parents quite often tell us their kids stay out late or don't come back all night.

"And there's a lot of violence and pornography on the internet. So we need to improve our management, or it will have a great impact on the kids."

But it is not just protecting the young that is at stake. China has already jailed one man for spreading subversive information via the internet. Another is expected to go on trial soon.

They can see which computer in which cafe is looking at which site

Tung Darun, software company
The government also blocks access to sites run by dissidents, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, and some - though by no means all - foreign media.

Now, it wants to keep tabs on what people look at in internet cafes by making them register their identity card number and by making the cafes install new software. The software was designed by a Shanghai firm run by Teng Derun.

"The police can use the software to monitor all internet cafes and see if anyone's breaking the rules," he says. "It uses keywords and a database of websites.

"If you look at a site you shouldn't, there'll be an alarm - a beeping sound in the police station - and they can see which computer in which cafe is looking at which site."

Business and democracy

Yet, as an official promotional video for China makes clear, the government also says it needs the internet for its economic benefits. In Shanghai, for example, all nine-year-olds in the city's schools will start learning internet skills this year.

Net surfers
Parents say their children are becoming net addicts
So can the government really control the net without stifling its development?

Duncan Clarke, head of Beijing-based consultancy BDA, says the general feeling is that self-censorship is the most effective tool for controlling the internet.

"And the way you encourage self-censorship is to have isolated crackdowns on individuals or companies in the hope that this will then make people more aware of the line in China which they should not cross," he says.

There are signs that the government is now trying to rein in China's news websites, which have led the way in publishing stories on corruption and disasters. Last year, it introduced a special licence for news providers and banned the use of foreign news content.

It has also sought to channel the internet in a patriotic direction.

The official People's Daily newspaper's website runs a bulletin called the "strong country forum" which has seen frequent denunciations of the United States and the West. But it has also carried criticisms of the Chinese Government.

These, of course, are quickly deleted, but they are a hint of the challenges that a fast-growing internet could pose to China.

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt reports
"More than 50,000 internet cafes have sprung up"
See also:

20 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
China acts on net 'addicts'
18 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
China internet growth slows
29 Apr 01 | Media reports
China internet cafe debate hots up
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