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CHINA: Cyberlives Thrive Under the State’s Watchful Eyes

BEIJING, Jun 30 2010 (IPS) - Twenty-four-year-old Li Jun sits where he sits most nights of the week, in front of a computer in his local Internet cafe in the east of the Chinese capital, playing ‘World of Warcraft’.

It is past midnight on a typical Monday night, yet almost every computer in the Internet cafe he sits in is in use. That is no small feat given that hundreds of computers are crammed into the small, second-floor space, and that industrial fans are needed to keep the patrons cool – as well as to clear the smoke that comes from the many, many lit cigarettes around.

Every night, this scene is played out in thousands of Internet bars in hundreds of cities across China – a country that had 384 million Internet users by the end of 2009, and where this number increases by 31.95 million users annually, according to a White Paper on the Internet released by the Chinese government in June.

Despite the recent problems with Google, which ended with the company rerouting its Chinese-language server through Hong Kong after it refused to continue to carry out self-censorship, and the restrictions placed on some search content by the Chinese government, China is by far the most populous country in the world for Internet users.

The Internet now pervades many aspects of Chinese life.

More than 100 million Chinese make regular purchases online, with Chinese e-commerce worth 530 billion U.S. dollars a year. Internet-related equipment accounted for some 10 percent of China’s global sales in 2009, according to the government’s White Paper. There are now an estimated 220 million Chinese bloggers.

Many hail the prevalence of Chinese bloggers and online forums — the country has over a million online bulletin boards (BBS) where anonymous messages can be posted — as a sign that the Internet can be a place of freedom for Chinese people to express their views, including dissatisfaction and unhappiness, without fear of repercussions.

“Ordinary Chinese people regard the Internet as a channel to speak out, and what they post on the website is often picked up by other netizens,” said Kuang Wenbo, a professor of journalism and communications at Renmin University of China and an authority on the Internet in China, who describes the popularity of the Internet in the country as “overwhelming.”

However, not all agree that this freedom of online speech is that beneficial for human rights in China.

“The average person with Internet or mobile access has a much greater sense of freedom – and may even feel like they have the ability to speak and be heard – in ways that weren’t possible under classic authoritarianism,” analyst Rebecca MacKinnon, who follows China’s use of the Internet, wrote soon after the government released its White Paper.

“It also makes most people a lot less likely to join a movement calling for radical political change,” she explained.” In many ways, the regime actually uses the Internet not only to extend its control but also to enhance its legitimacy.”

Despite its own suggestions to the contrary, the Chinese government is clearly not ready to grant complete freedom to Chinese Internet users.

Sites like Facebook and YouTube are longstanding casualties of China’s Internet censorship, also known as the Great Firewall of China. Likewise, the recent White Paper set forth a long list of illegal online activities, which included “subverting state power and jeopardising national unification; damaging state honour and interests; …(and) jeopardising ethnic unity”.

There have also been comments in the Chinese media that regulators are soon to be established that will introduce a real-name system to Internet forums, website ownership, and even online gaming — a move that will remove anonymity and allow an easier way to trace who says what.

While millions of Chinese blog, it is gaming that draws Li and his peers to China’s Internet cafes.

Online gaming in the country is huge and was worth almost 4 billion dollars last year, because it is a major past time for young people. In fact, a new study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences concluded that 14 percent of Chinese adults are addicted to the Internet – a total of more than 33 million individuals.

“The affliction of modern technology, if not a disorder, has to be addressed to help promote healthy and scientific Internet usage among young people,” said Shen Jie, a professor at the academy and the report’s project director, when the document was released on Jun. 18.

Li does not consider his two hours of playing online games a night an addiction, but it surpasses the 90-minute threshold for recreational usage set by Shen’s survey project.

Such is Internet users’ focus on these games, however, that it is hard to engage Li or any of those in the cybercafe in long conversation. Beyond pausing to borrow a cigarette lighter, most of them seem so focused on playing games, watching Korean soap operas or chatting with online friends, that it is hard to engage them in the real world.

Despite the concern over Internet addiction, China’s government has set a goal of raising Internet accessibility to 45 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people over the next five years. That would be far above the world average of 26.6 percent, Renmin University’s Kuang says, which means Li will soon have many more people to play against in his nightly contests.

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

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