China: November 1, 2004


Over the Summer, the government inspected the nation's 1.8 million Internet cafes. With over a hundred million regular Internet users, Chinese depend on the Internet cafes more than they do PCs at home or work. There's one Internet cafe for every 600 Chinese, and even the most out of the way towns have them. Many are ramshackle affairs, with a few PCs operating over dial up lines, although those in big cities often dozens of PCs, running on high speed lines (mainly for gaming.) The government crackdown was meant to put the fear of retribution into the cafe owners, and encourage them to work with the government to prevent "illegal" Internet use (porn, viewing foreign news sources that the government tries to block, and anti-government activity in general.) About one percent of the Internet cafes were ordered shut until the owners could deal with technical, financial or management problems the inspectors detected. All but 1,600 of the 18,000 cafes closed, were eventually allowed to reopen.  The Internet cafe owners were suitably cowed, but they have not been able to stop the free flow of information. In many places, the Internet cafes have simply added to the growing police corruption, as prosperous Internet entrepreneurs find it easier to just bribe the cops to stay away.

The government doesn't want to pull the plug on the Internet, lest it have a negative impact on the economy. But as long as Chinese have Internet access, the government no longer has a monopoly on the news. That means problems the government would rather keep quiet (corruption, riots, serial killers, natural disasters), are now out of control. And so is the government's ability to deal with potential political unrest. 


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