Beijing Shuts Internet Cafes

Flames rise from an Internet cafe in Beijing's university district early Sunday, June 16, 2002.
Beijing shut down Internet cafes around the city Monday and state media branded Web games played at them a drug preying on China's youth after a fire killed 24 people at an unlicensed Cyber cafe.

As college students hunted fruitlessly for a place to log on, some wondered whether Chinese authorities were covering up for their heavy-handedness in dealing with the popular Internet.

"It's a hassle, a real hassle," said one Beijing student who declined to give his name. "Twenty-four people dying is pretty bad, but the reaction is extreme."

China's tight controls on the Internet and Web cafes have driven many operators underground, where they operate illegally behind locked doors to avoid scrutiny.

Computer science major Fan Xuyu of People's University summed up the view of many about the ban. "Our world has become a little smaller," he said.

At least 24 people were killed and 13 injured when the fire swept through the packed Lanjisu Cafe in a university district of Beijing early Sunday in what the official Xinhua news agency labeled the city's worst fire in 50 years.

Xinhua reported Monday that the manager of the ill-fated cafe, 36-year-old Zheng Wenjing, had turned himself in late on Sunday. Police declined to comment.

Zheng could face severe punishment if he is found to be involved. After fire tore through a nightclub in the central Chinese city of Luoyang killing 309 people on Christmas Day two years ago, 23 people were given long prison sentences.

The weekend blaze drew a swift response from officials around the country. Within hours, Beijing Mayor Liu Qi ordered the immediate closure of all Internet cafes in the capital and fire inspections for all buildings over the next three months.

In the cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou and the eastern province of Shandong, authorities stepped up safety checks of Internet cafes or stopped issuing new licenses to cafes altogether, Xinhua said.

In Beijing, not a single Internet cafe could be found open.

State media tried to justify the measures. "Don't let Internet bars destroy kids," read the front-page headline of a blistering article in the Communist Party organ the People's Daily, quoting a concerned mother from central Henan province.

The paper told how her 12-year-old boy turned from a star student into a strung-out Internet addict paying low prices to stay the night -- usually locked in -- at the crowded parlors, most of which are unlicensed and ignore a ban on minors.

"The Web games were like a drug tormenting the child's soul," said the paper. "...his grades plunged, his health drastically declined and his spirits were dulled. He became an ill-tempered freak, a zombie."

By the end of 2001, the Chinese mainland had 33.7 million Internet surfers and 12.54 million personal computers linked to the Internet, Xinhua said.

To state media, the deadly blaze seemed confirmation that the bars were dens of iniquity, sheltering loafers and outcasts and poisoning young minds with virtual dates and interactive games.

The Beijing Evening News urged city residents Sunday to call an emergency number to report illegal Web bars as well as bathing and entertainment centers -- notorious for prostitution rackets -- as police begin an annual sweep of Beijing's streets.

The Lanjisu Cafe was one of 2,200 illegally operating Web bars in Beijing. Its customers had to rap at a bolted door to get in and out, witnesses said.