Both boys and girls, school children from the very young all the way to university students crowd the internet cafes of China. It’s a statistic that may be interpreted by some as the rise of the empowered and informed masses, the armament of a population to resist the singularly dominating force that is the Chinese centralized authority. China has the world’s second largest population of internet users, after the US, and it is thought that a majority of these are of the youngest generations.
However, looking around as I sit in the rickety chair of this internet cafe in Kunming, Yunnan Province, listening to the constant pulse of key strikes and the frequent zings, pops and whizzes from nearby headphones, it is easy to interpret something different entirely. A vast majority of the computer screens here – almost every single one, in fact – is illuminated by Orks building castles and battling humans, avitars dancing to doped up generic techno music, or special forces operatives picking off the enemy through a night vision scope. A few screens have a movie playing in one corner, a program downloading mp3’s in another, and three different chat conversations happening simultaneously in whatever is left on the lcd.
Granted, email and other digital chat services have been proven as effective organizational tools in some cases of activism and social action, but judging by the number of smiley faces and cute pictures in the chat conversations and the giggles of the typers, I am guessing that the topic of the democracy movement has not come up today.
In fact, the popularity of internet cafes in China’s cities has reached levels that have provoked responses from the authorities. While other actions have indeed been blatant attempts to maintain control over access to information and communication, these recent acts have been a response to what is seen by many as an epidemic of online game playing. Some places do not allow people under the age of 18, and others won’t let children in if they are wearing school uniforms or if it is during school time.
I recently had a conversation with someone who was researching the occurance of homeless children in Kunming, and she said that one of the causes leading to child homelessness has been internet cafes. Children go to the cafe to play games so often that they just stop going home – they spend all the money they have, and turn to petty crime to fund their habit/ addiction.