(June 28th, 2002, 8:24 pm)
There was a cool article in the LA Times about the new Dens of Iniquity in china's cities: Internet Cafes (they serve no food). It seemed like nothing so much as a passage straight out of an old cyberpunk novel:
DENS OF THE CYBER ADDICTS
A deadly fire prompts China's latest crackdown on seedy e-cafes filled with unruly game players. "You can't stop us," one youth says.
By Ching-ching Ni
Times Staff Writer
June 28 2002
BEIJING -- At first, Song Yozhu thought that his 14-year-old grandson was on drugs. The boy rarely came home. When he did show up, he was lethargic. Then, a few weeks ago, he and a 13-year-old friend bleached their hair blond and started living together in an empty apartment.
"He told me, no, he was not on drugs," Song said. "He had been hanging out at the wang ba. He said he went there almost every night."
Wang bas are China's 200,000 Internet cafes, the vast majority of them illegal. To the West, they may appear to raise the prospect of free expression in a country with an authoritarian regime, but to Chinese parents, they are smoke-filled rooms with substandard safety conditions, nothing more than modern-day versions of opium dens ruining their children's lives.
And, in some cases, taking their children's lives.
This month, 25 people, many of them teenagers, were killed in a blaze at a Beijing wang ba. Chillingly, it was no accident. Song's grandson and his friend have confessed to setting the fire, allegedly as revenge against the owners, who had refused to let them in.
The government immediately shut down every wang ba in the capital, and Chinese parents cheered. Large cities across China took similar action.
"I am very happy the government closed all the Internet cafes at the moment," said Lu Mei, who said his 16-year-old son was forced to repeat a year of high school because he spent too much time at the cafes. "He used to lie to me about where he was going. I thought he was studying at school, yet he was playing games at the Internet cafe. I was so angry, I didn't know what to do. I couldn't follow him everywhere."
Wang ba translates as "Net bar." But the majority of them qualify neither as cafes nor bars. You won't find espresso machines or beer on tap. You will, however, see plenty of ashtrays and breathe in lots of smoke. Some facilities are so primitive, the only bathroom is a bucket against a wall.
Like those at the wang ba that burned, most owners skirt the law, operating without a license and serving minors. China permits people younger than 18 to patronize licensed wang bas on weekends and holidays. Those younger than 14 can enter only with an adult.
Some say Beijing is responsible for promoting illicit wang bas. The Communist government is so afraid of the Internet's power to spread antisocial activities, it has tried to control Internet cafes by making it nearly impossible to get a license. Instead, the move has had the opposite effect.
The illegal market has flourished, with fewer safety precautions. Periodic crackdowns such as the one underway have only made the cafes more popular.
As much as the government is wary of the Internet, it also understands the Web's economic and social benefits. For example, Beijing wants to be known as a digital city for the 2008 Olympics. That won't be possible if the authorities unplug all the Internet cafes.
The state-owned telecommunications sector also has tremendous financial interest in promoting the use of the Internet. The question Beijing is wrestling with is how best to control the phenomenon without killing it.
"It's hard to imagine they would want to crack down on a permanent basis," said Dali Yang, a China specialist at the University of Chicago. "No sane Chinese leader would want to say that. This is not an absolute issue of Internet freedom but how to best regulate the industry."
Even if the government wanted a total ban, physically it wouldn't be possible. The wang bas pop up easily: All you need is a few computers and a room and you're in business.
Still, this month's fire has become a rallying point for worried parents long eager to stamp out the illegal cafes and rein in the country's out-of-control cyber kids.
Blame what is happening on two decades of dramatic social change. China went from being a nearly computer-illiterate nation a few years ago to one with 33 million Internet users.
That might seem puny compared with the 143 million signing on in the United States. But China's numbers are growing exponentially and are expected to reach 100 million by mid-decade. The country soon could boast the biggest online population on Earth.
The more open society of modern China has brought not only unprecedented personal freedom but also an explosion in juvenile crime.
In a country that not long ago was filled with young Communists so morally upright that they would turn a penny found on the street over to police, juvenile delinquents now regularly make the news, mirroring their naughty counterparts in the West.
Contrary to what some Westerners—and members of the Chinese Communist Party—might expect, many young Chinese Web surfers show only minimal interest in the Internet as a tool for information gathering or political subversion. Like youngsters around the globe, what they really crave is computer games. Lots of computer games.
To them, wang bas function as a giant video arcade. At the cafe that burned, for example, players paid less than $2 a night for all the games they wanted. Even those who have their own terminals find the cafes cheaper, faster and infinitely more fun than signing on from home or school, where parents and teachers may be around to supervise.
This is a generation of spoiled only children—"little emperors," as they're often called. They grew up in a society without devotion to God, Mao or sometimes even their parents. The online world of violent games serves as a kind of surrogate faith for many.
Some seem to delight in their addiction.
At Beijing Science and Technology University, which reportedly lost nine students in the blaze, it was standing room only last week in one undergraduate computer room, which is still open because it is part of the school's academic facility, not a wang ba.
The vast majority of the 100 or so students there were male, and virtually all the on-screen activities were games.
The atmosphere was so charged, it felt like an actual combat zone, with players linking up in online squads and firing away as if their lives depended on it.
"If I don't play for one day, I can't concentrate on anything," said Liang Sai, a 19-year-old chemistry major waiting for a terminal. "If you ban all the Internet cafes, we'll find somewhere else to play. You can't stop us, because we're hooked."
For the two boys accused of setting the deadly fire, the wang ba was practically their second home.
Both Song's grandson, who because of his age has been identified only by his last name, Song, and his accomplice, identified as Zhang, have drug-addicted fathers now in jail, said the grandfather.
These aren't spoiled children. Song's parents divorced before he was a year old. He hasn't seen his mother since he was 7. He grew up with his father, who had a string of girlfriends. Some of them used to beat the boy, his grandfather said.
The grandparents once found the boy, then 2, waiting for his father on a trash pile, chewing on rotten fruit. Early this year, when his father went to jail, the boy went to live with his grandfather, a 67-year-old widower who uses a wheelchair.
Zhang basically lived on his own in his mother's bare apartment. She was never around. A few weeks ago, young Song moved in with him, hauling over the TV, refrigerator and washer from his father's house. They smoked cigarettes and literally played with fire, twice almost burning down the apartment, the grandfather said.
The grandson pretended to go to school, but classmates said they rarely saw him. When he did show up, he behaved like a bully, borrowing money he never returned so he could head back to the Internet cafe.
"He has suffered too much pain. He's not afraid of anything," the older Song said.
What the boy needed, it seemed, was hope. Sometime last year, his mother called his grandfather to say that if he did well in school, she would find a way to take him to the United States. The thought that his mother still cared seemed enough to transform the delinquent into an angel.
"His teachers were so shocked at his progress they cried during the PTA meeting," the grandfather said. "But then his father got into trouble, and the boy gave up again."
The wang ba became his refuge.
Today, the boys remain under police detention, pending further investigation and possibly a trial.
Entrepreneurs say that if Beijing seizes on the wang ba fire to toughen regulations overall, it could deal a serious blow to legitimate cyber cafes—which already are weak competitors of the illegal operators, partly because they tend to be nicer, safer and more expensive.
"Without good and simple regulations that distinguish between good and bad Internet cafes, it's very hard for entrepreneurs to invest in the business," said Edward Zeng, the self-proclaimed founder of China's first upscale Internet cafe in 1996.
His cafes actually serve coffee and turn away minors, but he said he's paying a price for following the law. In the last two years, poor business has forced him to cut his chain of about 20 shops by half, he said.
Only about 10% of Beijing's estimated 2,200 Internet cafes are legitimate, because the state makes obtaining licenses very difficult. Illegal operators thrive—they give young Web users what they want: 24-hour service for as little as 25 cents an hour, cigarettes, even cots to crash on. This makes for cheap entertainment, even in China. Youngsters in school uniforms are the illicit cafes' main clientele.
The Chinese press is splattered with horror stories about the tragic consequences.
A high school sophomore came home late from a wang ba and confronted his angry father, according to one account. Then the teenager leaped from the family's seventh-floor window.
One middle school student had been playing for so long that he insisted he was being abducted by aliens. His parents sent him to a mental hospital.
Parents have tried begging and grounding. Some have cut their children's allowance. No matter—the kids borrowed, stole, sold their bicycles. Anything to keep playing.
Some desperate parents have hired private detectives to hunt down children who go missing for days. Others have formed neighborhood brigades to patrol local haunts.
But the games go on.
"It's a great way to kill time and fill emptiness," said Liang, the chemistry major. "Most of us can't afford to travel or do other things for fun. I don't know about the girls, but for the guys, it's our No. 1 recreational activity."
When the girls turn up, they tend to stay in a separate part of the room reading e-mail and chatting online. Many drown out the noise from the game-crazed boys by downloading pop songs and listening to them on headphones.
Liang said he likes to play as many as seven hours a day straight, and Saturdays are usually all-nighters. On the night of the fire, he was playing at a nearby wang ba when the blaze illuminated the sky.
The two alleged arsonists apparently bickered with the owners because they had no money to play. So the boys torched the place with gasoline, according to their confession.
Those who died were trapped on the second floor of the building. The only exit was engulfed in flames—or perhaps locked from the outside. The windows were bolted with steel bars, a common practice for owners afraid of inspectors and computer theft.
Bouquets of yellow chrysanthemums appeared last week on the curb next to the gutted building. Reading the messages of grief left most parents shaken and determined.
Zo Jianjune, the mother of a 21-year-old son who lives next door to the burned cafe, said her husband had run to the wang ba, unbolted the steel bars and saved seven people.
"A crackdown is absolutely necessary," she said. "Otherwise, there's no telling what else could happen."
(June 28th, 2002, 8:25 pm)
The chinese media aren't exactly reliable. A few weeks ago, one of the major articles in one of Beijing's major newspapers had been lifted verbatim from the Onion.
(June 29th, 2002, 12:52 am)
(June 29th, 2002, 3:33 am)
I'll not comment on the state of moral decay and it's results. :)
(June 29th, 2002, 4:21 am)
"lifted verbatim from the Onion" hahahaha!! that's hilarious!
but if it's true, it's scary... uncannily like cyberpunk. seems like a universal truth that when restrictions go too far, the whole thing bursts at the seams and lawlessness takes over. like the Prohibition period in american history... which, btw, i only know about through gangster movies.
(June 29th, 2002, 9:42 pm)
Woo...Weird. I assure you, it must be lies :P I've been using the net for 3-4 years, and criminal ideas have ver crossed my mind. Either the media's wrong, the children are wrong or they're all stupid :P
(July 1st, 2002, 2:52 am)
Remember, this is an LA Times story; they wouldn't report it if their sources weren't at least somewhat reliable. Keeping in mind that China is a third-world country in many respects, it's not so hard to believe something like this could happen.
(July 1st, 2002, 4:58 am)
yeah, you people in them developed countries don't know jack... j/k ;)
there was an article in Time about how kids in china (at least, i think it was china) got so addicted to and involved in a multiplayer rpg, that the violent antagonism between rival teams spilled over into the real world... mob fights, beating up 'enemies', and all that. yikes.
(July 1st, 2002, 10:58 am)
More fuel for the "Reality is simply what you think it is" brigade :P
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