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CASTING THE NET WIDER

The world's agog at what's happening to the internet in China. But within the country, there are few obvious signs of the upheavals going on, at least to the foreign eye. China has a lot of internet rules. According to an Amnesty International report, internet service providers must instal software to ensure that messages are recorded, and if they violate the law, the ISP must send a copy to the authorities. Proprietors of internet cafes must instal software preventing users from accessing and disseminating information considered 'harmful to state security', and material on 'heretical organizations', violence and pornography.

Shades of Indira Gandhi's Emergency' There's more of that ' self-censorship. In August 2002, the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline issued by the Internet Society of China, came into force. Signatories to the pledge agree to 'refrain from producing, posting or disseminating pernicious information that may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability, contravene laws and regulations and spread superstition and obscenity'.

No one's immune: one diplomat's e-mail to his countrymen during the SARS crisis brought on a warning 'not to spread panic'. Amnesty has investigated 33 'prisoners of conscience', serving long sentences in jail or labour camps for internet-related crimes.

Early start

But a peep into the internet-caf' next door, and you wonder what the fuss is all about. Internet cafes in south China's coastal cities are no hole-in-the-wall affairs as they are in Mumbai. These cafes mostly occupy entire floors of a building, with more than 100 computers in each. The rate is 3 to 4 yuan an hour. You pay a deposit of 10 yuan at the counter, buy a soft drink and head upstairs.

The first thing that hits you is the noise of computer games, often 'Counter Strike', being played at full volume, without the headphones provided at each table. Sometimes, you find a young girl surfing the net for fashion; or pornographic images flickering on a screen. The average age of the customers ' and the attendants ' seems to be 19.

China is said to have 120 million internet users. William Ding Lei, founder of the Nasdaq-listed internet company Netease.com, has been rated the third richest man in mainland China by Forbes.

Dangerous games

The internet has become such a craze that there have been cases of net addicts falling unconscious after prolonged sittings in front of the computer during the three annual 'golden week holidays'. There has been at least one case of an internet game player killing his online rival for 'stealing' his 'dragon sabre'. It took this 41-year-old Shanghai resident hours of playing the game called 'The Legend of Mir III' to win this weapon online. He then lent it online to another player, who 'sold' it online without the former's permission. The original 'owner' first reported the 'theft' to the police; when they laughed, he killed the 'thief'.

Others ' less violent, but no less serious about their online possessions ' have gone to court over such 'thefts'. The field of internet games is regarded as one of China's fastest growing industries. The government is keen to develop original Chinese games to fend off competition from Japan and South Korea. What better way to preserve 'state security' than to get an entire generation hooked'

At the same time, it wants to keep students away from this and other net addictions. So regular raids have taken place on internet cafes to enforce the rule banning under-18s from visiting them. Yet, in January last year, a 13-year-old's suicide note said that he had become so addicted to online games that he could no longer distinguish between virtual and actual reality.

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