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China's Internet cafes require heed

China Business Weekly

Zhang Xiuqing, the mother of a 16-year-old son, was glad to find that the Internet cafes around the school where her son studies were closed recently.

"My son studies well and he ranks top five in his class," said Zhang, "but when he frequents the Internet cafes, his rank could drop to the last few."

Many other Chinese parents of juveniles share Zhang's opinion, believing their children spend too much time in Internet cafes and that school studies are affected. Even worse, these parents fear, is that unhealthy information may poison young minds.

However, experts suggest that instead of shutting them down, the government should seek a rational way to improve the administration of the country's numerous Internet cafes.

"The government has gone to extremes in regulating the sector," Fang Xingdong, co-founder of China Labs, a leading domestic Internet research company, told China Business Weekly. "China needs Internet cafes."

China has shut down more than 8,600 Internet cafes since February, many of them for illegally admitting juveniles, Xinhua News Agency reported recently.

The country also banned Internet cafes within 220 yards of schools because of its fear children could become exposed to pornography or hooked on online video games, reported the agency.

According to Fang, China now has 40 million personal computers (PCs), while its number of netizens -- regular Internet users, is about 80 million.

"Many Chinese still cannot afford to buy a PC, and for them, an Internet cafe offers the most economical and convenient access to the Internet," said Fang.

PCs are sold at around 5,000 yuan (US$602.41) on average. By comparison, it costs only two yuan (24 cents) per hour, or even less during the night, to surf on the Internet in a cafe.

Statistics indicate that more than 20 per cent of the country's netizens frequent Internet cafes.

The Internet has become the most important and fastest channel for people to obtain information.

In times when knowledge is power, popular Internet cafes are vital to fill the gap between rich and poor in China, and also, between China and developed economies, said Fang.

In particular, young people should be encouraged to be Internet users, he said.

However, according to the country's rules on Internet cafe businesses that came into effect in late 2002, minors under 18 years old are allowed to enter Internet cafes only between 8 am and 9 pm on legal holidays.

Otherwise, the cafes are considered to be breaking the rules. And if a cafe is found to break the rules three times, it will be closed down by the authorities.

Meanwhile, minors under 14 years old are supposed to be accompanied by guardians in Internet cafes.

"There's no rule that stipulates specific times for minors under 18 to enter entertainment spots such as discotheques. Why should Internet cafes?" said Fang.

Students of junior and senior high schools are the majority of guests in Internet cafes in China. It is impractical for them to enter the cafes only during the appointed time period, said Fang.

Echoing Fang's view is Zeng Jianqiu, director of the Information Technology Economy Research Centre of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. Zeng said young people, who are more tech-savvy, dominate newly emerging netizens in China.Internet cafes could be their most practical access point to the Internet, especially in the less developed central and western regions of China, and rural areas.

"The authorities should take the actual needs into consideration when they stipulate rules," said Zeng.

And experts agree that the multi-administration of Internet cafes by various government organs is not good for the regulation of the sector.

"Although we are not sure how the government can better regulate the business, the multi-administration model has definitely helped little in efficient and unified management," Lu Benfu, researcher with the Internet Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Business Weekly.

Currently, the Ministry of Public Security is responsible for the spot security and the Internet security of Internet cafes; the State Administration for Industry and Commerce issues business licences and offers registration; while the Ministry of Culture is supposed to supervise the information on the computers of Internet cafes.

Moreover, other departments including the Ministry of Information Industry, and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television also rule over the sector.

"Each department has its own work team for Internet cafes to strengthen the administration, but without smooth co-ordination, it now proves to be inefficient," said Lu.

Fortunately, technology itself helps to prevent access to unhealthy information on the Internet cafes' computers.

The Shanghai Municipal Government last month installed video surveillance equipment and software in public places including Internet cafes.

With the new software installed, users are asked to input personal identification data to log on, while a supervisory centre will monitor the Internet surfing and check whether a cafe is illegally operating at night, reported Shanghai Daily.

The software, which supervises more than 110,000 computers at the city's more than 1,300 Internet cafes, cost 7 million yuan (US$850,000), said the paper.

Good technology as it is, such software and equipment is yet to become a feasible way to regulate the Internet business in medium-sized and small cities, with less developed economies.

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