Tea Leaf Nation

Are Chinese Internet Bars Coming Back From the Dead?

The state's finally gotten out of their way, perhaps too late.

Chinese people use computers at an inter
Chinese people use computers at an internet bar in Beijing on September 30, 2009. Press rights group Reporters Without Borders said on September 29 that a "paranoid" China had blocked tens of thousands of websites ahead of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic. AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

China has kept Internet bars on a tight regulatory leash for more than a decade, fearful that they were luring young people into depravity and addiction. But in a sharp change of course, Beijing has decided to strip away many of those rules and restrictions, potentially paving the way for a surge in new real-world computer gaming centers. Some expect the move could help revive cyber café culture, while others think the rise of smart phones means Chinese Internet bars are headed for inevitable extinction. The shift suggests that China, long leery of the Internet itself as a corrupting influence, is perhaps becoming more open to the benefits of having a networked population — or at least is more confident in its ability to police that network.

Cyber cafés mushroomed in China during the late 1990s and early 2000’s as ordinary Chinese clamored to chat and play games online, but were stymied by prohibitively expensive home computers. Instead, they turned to the ubiquitous, often smoke-filled wangba that dotted even physically isolated Chinese cities. But the frenzy was brought up short in the summer of 2002 when a group of middle school teenagers set fire to the Lan Ji Su Internet Café in the capital, Beijing. The arson attack killed 25 people, horrifying the nation and prompted the government to enact strict new management regulations for cyber cafés. In November of that year, rules came into effect that barred minors from cyber cafés across the country, and registration was required by patrons to help ensure the “No minors” rule was being followed. At schools, kids hoisted banners that said “Say No to Internet Bars” or “Keep Your Distance From Internet Bars.”.

The public image of Internet bars nosedived as ordinary Chinese came to associate them with not only with wayward youth, but also with dangerous gaming binges. By 2005, Beijing had a dedicated clinic for Internet addiction where young people were treated with IV drips, low-voltage shock treatments, and acupuncture for their game and chat fixations. Cyber cafés were blamed for providing young people with a place to spiral out of control online. The government also accused the cafés of being a source of pirated movies and software and for exposing young people to sex, violence, and gambling via online gaming. Over the years, these negative associations and the rigid government rules have taken their toll. Even though China’s online population topped 630 million in June 2014 and continues to rise, cyber cafés have been evaporating since around 2011. In 2012, some 10,000 Internet cafés closed down, leaving just 136,000 licensed cafés, The Financial Times reported in December, 2013 citing research by Chinese tech giant Tencent.

The other major factor driving the decline of cyber cafés has been the rise of mobile phone use and mobile gaming in China, which have made cyber cafés superfluous for many. The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), a nonprofit organization that tracks China’s Internet trends, announced in June that for the first time in China, mobile phones had overtaken computers as the preferred method to get online. And cyber cafés have also fallen out of favor even with people who still use PCs to get online, with only about 19 percent of such web users doing so at an Internet bar, according to CNNIC.

“The ten year curse has finally been lifted” for China’s net café sector, the game news site 97973.com reported after the Ministry of Culture announced the liberalization of cyber café rules on Nov 24. Gone are limitations about the physical size of a venue and number of computers a café must have, and there is no longer a ban on individual cafés. The changes could open up the market to many new players. But why bother to give Chinese cyber cafés a second life if there are home and phone alternatives? On social media site Weibo, one Beijing tech entrepreneur wrote, “There‘s wifi everywhere and it’s the era of coffee shops. So what point is there in getting rid of these restrictions now?”

But moneyed tech founders aren’t the cyber cafés’ target audience. Chinese Internet bars offer web users chance to use computers and software that might otherwise lie well outside of their personal price range. In a country like China eager to nurture innovation and to develop science and technology, it makes sense to let as many people as possible have access to affordable computing — even if they start by using the cafés for video games and chats.

Mark Natkin, founder of the Beijing-based, tech-focused market research firm Marbridge Consulting, told Foreign Policy that there “just isn’t much point” in maintaining such heavy regulation of the cyber café sector in China anymore. He compared it to how the government lifted the ten-year ban on console gaming in January when the technology had been made essentially obsolete by the rise of online gaming. Natkin also said that opening the sector to more players could help create more jobs, which for the government is “especially important now as growth in China’s economy starts to flag.”

That view jibes with the angle being spun in the state press. The state-run China Youth Daily quoted Tao Ran, the well-known founder of the Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Daxing, a suburb of Beijing, saying cyber cafés could help grow the IT service sector and be useful engines for job creation. The English-language Global Times newspaper, a government mouthpiece, paraphrased the cultural market director at the Ministry of Culture, Chen Tong, saying the move was meant to undo excessive government intervention which had “distorted the industry’s development and caused a lack of competition.” The paper also suggested that cyber cafés are needed to help get more of China’s rural poor online. The Times quoted Suzhou University professor and expert on the cyber café sector Pan Gongxia as saying that Internet bars made a “critical contribution to immensely increasing China’s Web users’ population in such a short time,” and in “popularizing the Internet among disadvantaged young people.” Like Tao, Pan also argued that cyber cafés have been unfairly indicted in the court of public opinion for juvenile web addiction and delinquency. “Malls will have some young shoplifters, but it doesn’t mean they should be consolidated and shut down,” Pan said. 

Some ordinary Chinese weren’t ready for the shift. For them, cyber cafés remain a bogeyman. On Weibo, a man from Baoji, a city in central China, wrote that he expected the new cafés would mean “more kids playing games and skipping school.” Another in the massive southern city of Guangzhou wrote, “The main customers for these places are under-18 students who enter illegally. They are really poison for our schoolchildren.” But many others just scratched their heads over why it took authorities so long to liberalize the sector. As one user from Shanghai wrote, “This should have been done a long time ago.”

AFP/Getty Images

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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