China bans new Internet cafes - Karl Malakunas

From AFP

China on Tuesday banned any more cybercafes from opening this year, the latest move by the nation's communist rulers to restrict the rising influence of the Internet.

Chinese authorities will not approve any more Internet cafe licences in 2007, according to a notice posted on the culture ministry's website.

The notice also vowed to crack down on gambling through online games and restrict the use of virtual currencies.

There are currently about 113,000 Internet bars in China, the official Xinhua news agency said in a report on the ban, citing government figures.

The number of cafes has exploded in recent years alongside China's fast-rising Internet population, which soared 23.4 percent to 137 million in 2006.

The number of Chinese web surfers is expected to overtake that of the United States, which now stands at around 210 million, within two years.

Xinhua said the curbs on new cybercafes were part of the government's campaign to combat the rising problem of Internet addiction.

Thirteen percent of the 18 million Internet users in China aged under 18 are Internet addicts, Xinhua said, citing official statistics.

However, China's Communist Party leaders, who enforce strict curbs on the press, have made no secret of the fact they regard the Internet as a threat and that it should be subjected to the same controls as traditional media.

In a speech in January, President Hu Jintao called on the party to "purify the Internet environment."

"Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information and the stability of the state," Hu said, in comments carried by the state-run press.

Hu said the government should use "new tactics" and advanced technologies to guide public opinion and improve Internet security.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which labels China's rulers as "enemies of the Internet," said last month that 52 people were languishing in Chinese jails for online activities deemed inappropriate by authorities.

Experts say 30,000-40,000 Internet police are employed to implement the country's extensive Internet censorship system, known as the "Great Firewall of China."

A man working at a crowded Internet cafe in Beijing's central business district on Tuesday said cyber police and officials from the culture ministry inspected his establishment up to three times a day.

"They ask every Internet user here to produce their identification cards and take away those who are under age," said the man, who gave only his surname, Song.

A 21-year-old waiter, Li Bo, who was playing Internet games at the cafe, said he was not concerned about censorship because he had no interest in politics, and was happy to receive his news from state-run television.

"I never look for political news on the Internet. Who cares about politics? We are just common people," Li said.