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Dens of the Cyber Addicts

A deadly fire prompts China's latest crackdown on seedy i-cafes filled with game-obsessed players. 'You can't stop us,' one youth says.


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.

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