Rules that crack down on internet cafes in the Hubei capital of Wuhan were introduced last September, seven months ahead of a nationwide crackdown. Outlets across the city feared shutdown, as did the nearly half of all internet users who use cyber-cafes as a social and informational lifeline. With an estimated 22.5m net users across the country, the central authorities have tried to keep people's eyes off things they fear will disrupt social order.
They eventually extended the clampdown to all parts of the country, but why did the initiative start in Wuhan? This central industrial city on the Yangtze River has a population of 7m, a disproportionate number of laid-off workers and more colleges per capita than the national average.
What caught the censor's attention was probably Wuhan's savvy mix of people that has given rise to the nation's highest dependence on internet cafes ?47 percent of all surfers use them, with the rest surfing at home, work or school. According to a study by Shanghai-based Interactive Audience Measurement Asia, 38 percent of Beijing net users and 30 percent of Shanghai net users visit these cafes. China's bigger cities each have about 1,000 cafe-type businesses.
An obsession with computers
Computer bars in Wuhan also attract more people likely to use computers for pleasure rather than work or study, says Mr. Cheng Zhong the manager of Sparkice, China's first internet cafe, in Beijing. He said more than 90 percent go to chatrooms, use instant messengers or play video games that may take place online or via local-area networks.
The city is also obsessed with computers. A six-lane street through the university quad-rant is lined with computer hardware stores, giving it the look of Beijing's Zhongguancun high-technology district, and computer training centres straddle the main gate to Wuhan University. The city's cafes use ADSL lines, up-to-date versions of Windows and charge two to three yuan an hour.
Wuhan's rules say a net cafe must have at least 30 computers, take names and ID numbers from all customers, provide technical as well as on-site security and bar access to games, according to the state-run China News Service. As in other Chinese cities, cafes in Wuhan are also required to install police-approved filter software and eject minors after 9.00pm, teenage boys being the most likely video game patrons.
Checking out the punters
It is not easy to find out what actually goes on in Wuhan's multi-chambered, multi-storied, dimly lit and colourfully decorated bars. A manager of the Long Sha Wang You inter-net cafe on Road 81 outside Wuhan University says she complies with the rules by making people register and by forbidding them to play games. "Everybody around here follows the same rules," she says, pointing up and down the street outside her door.
An internet cafe a few hundred metres away, the Ladybug Net Bar, makes people register with a name and identification card. But on a Saturday afternoon just after final exams, many men in their late teens and early 20s were found to be playing cards and `shoot-em-up' games on the computers, which come with headsets so other patrons don't hear the gunfire and screams. Net bar staff members talk with one another at the front desk rather than check on customers.
A block past the university's main gate, the cafe called Freesky tells a different story. While a manager issuing cards and taking registrations says "there are no rules," stickers plastered to the walls and to each of the more than 50 computers call the cafe a ?Wuhan city police department computer management and supervision station.? Next to a police badge insignia, users are confronted with messages echoing the law: ?It's prohibited to visit pornographic sites or express reactionary opinions? and ?It's prohibited not to register or to make an incomplete registration.?
Signs in the rooms full of arches and crumbling yellow wallpaper also remind people not to play games and to leave if they are primary or middle school students. Cafe staff pace the floors to make sure that all is in order.
The central government decided to go after the rest of the country between April 1 and June 30. The China Internet Network Information Centre then coordinated checks to root out young people spending too much time on games instead of on their studies. Inspectors checked for pornography and any cafes where users were found to be posting anti-China comments in chatrooms or on bulletin boards or photocopying material from anti-China websites.
About 8,000 cafes were shut down in China and have not reopened, says the director of a human rights centre in Hong Kong. Many others were asked to change their rules and reapply for licences, sometimes with as many as four different government agencies.
But people surveyed on the Wuhan University campus claim to have seen little difference after the city rules took effect. "Once you get inside, no one watches what you do," comments one.
Many students appear to be happy with the bars that cluster in Wuhan's university district. "In these net bars, many computers are connected to internet through local area networks, and broadband networks have developed in recent years in Wuhan," says computer student Ms Hong Lifang. "It has made surfing quicker."
Her lack of knowledge of the rules is also typical. "I don't know too much about inter-net regulations," she says. "I didn't study the management of the internet."
Information technology experts who regard the cyber-cafe situation as a clue to China's ultimate attitude toward internet use, have different views on what is really going on in Wuhan. Mr. Kent Kedl, executive director of the consultancy firm Technomics Asia, doubts the rules will stop surfers from going where they want.
"The story will be the same: the rules come out, one net bar is busted for breaking the rules – whether or not they actually did it will remain a question," Kedl says. "Authorities will fervently hope that the `killing the chicken to scare the monkey' tactic will work. It will not work, and China will slowly be injected with the same [internet] stuff both good and bad that the rest of the world is getting."
But Mr. Peter Lovelock, a manager with the Beijing-based Madeforchina.com consulting company, advises a more cautious outlook. "In China, there is a whole host of regulations being put forward by multiple administrative bodies," Lovelock says, "and it is difficult to know which ones are going to be enforced and which ones the government is feeling their way on."