Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Citing its concern for the effects of violent and pornographic content on China’s impressionable youth, Beijing permanently closed down 1,600 Internet cafes and suspended the operations of another 18,000 between February and August. Pity Beijing didn’t demonstrate similar sensitivity for its youth on Tiananmen Square in 1989. It’s also unfortunate that Beijing wasn’t more concerned about the public good during the SARS epidemic of the summer of 2003, when it covered up the extent of the crisis.

Beijing officially confirmed this week that it has closed down the Internet cafes for allegedly allowing underage patrons to play violent video games and access other violent and pornographic material. The government also fined operators $12 million for the so-called infractions and arrested 445 people.

The government’s official justification rings false. Beijing has long had an ambivalent relationship with the Internet. While it has encouraged the spread of broadband in order to spur China’s technological aptitude, it has tried to tightly control the content that its people can access.

Human-rights groups say as many as 30,000 government employees are hired to monitor the Internet full-time. Beijing also has erected sophisticated technological barriers to block political and other material.

Indeed, the Internet, cellphone text-messaging and other information technologies are becoming instruments of dissent. China leads the world in jailing online dissidents. More than 60 dissidents (in addition to an estimated 40 journalists) are incarcerated for jail terms of up to 15 years, simply for posting material the government objected to. The Chinese are required to show ID before entering Internet cafes and are watched by surveillance cameras there. Those under 18 years of age are legally barred from entering cyber cafes, and no cafes can be opened within 200 meters of any school.

Still, China has the second-largest number of Web surfers in the world, after the United States, at about 87 million. That represents less than 7 percent of the total population, so there is still considerable room for growth. It costs less than 30 cents an hour in many parts of China to access to the Internet. About 50 percent of China’s Internet users are under 24 years of age and 80 percent are between 14 and 35.

Beijing will undoubtedly continue its repressive control of information. So far, the government has been fairly successful in crushing freedom of expression. With some technological advancements, though, tomorrow may belong to the e-dissidents.

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