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In early June, two boys, aged 13 and 14, set fire to a Beijing Internet cafe in retaliation for having been kicked out by the manager earlier that evening, killing more than two dozen patrons and injuring another 13. The Chinese government responded quickly, shutting down more than 50,000 cyber cafes nationwide for two or more months of inspection and re-licensing-an act that has tremendous implications. In a 2000 study, Cheskin researchers found that roughly a third of the more than 30 million Internet users in China relied on cyber cafes as their primary means of going on-line.

These events occurred shortly before I arrived in Beijing to study the dramatic media changes reshaping China. As an American who had been intimately involved in the public policy debates following Columbine, I was fascinated to see how this controversy about youth access to digital media would play out in China.

Even a cursory glance at the history of communications technology shows a recurring pattern. Urban youths become early adopters of new media, carving out a social space that serves their own subcultural needs, which immediately becomes the subject of adult concern. A single tragedy sparks a full-scale moral panic, which governments then leverage to their own advantage. From a distance, it’s clear that the Chinese government is using the cyber cafe fire to limit Internet access.

Most Western discussions of the Internet and China describe the rise of digital access and consumer culture as liberating forces that cultivate democratic aspirations behind the repressive government’s back. MIT professor Jing Wang notes, however, that the expansion of consumerism has been actively promoted by the government throughout the last decade. Embracing a rhetoric of “one nation, two systems,” the state has encouraged a shorter work week, recreational activities, entrepreneurship, and more material goods per citizen. The goal has been to facilitate economic and technological change without promoting political destabilization.

A society once characterized by limited choice now confronts a multitude of consumer options and aggressive advertising campaigns. The first billboard I saw in Beijing contained the word “dotcom.” A few blocks away from Tiananmen Square, a mob of people stopped in the street and stared at a massive television screen broadcasting the World Cup punctuated by a host of consumer-electronics commercials. Red-tented Coca-Cola stands in the Forbidden City; traditional night markets flanking Starbucks-old economic and social systems are breaking down faster than new ones can emerge, resulting in a culture riddled with contradictions, a state policy characterized by mixed signals and a public charged by both anxiety and anticipation.

And China’s urban youth have stood at the center of these changes. In fact, three quarters of all Internet users in China are under 30. Many urban teens don’t remember a time without rampant consumerism. A few years in age between siblings translate into dramatic differences in cultural experiences. Fairly or unfairly, these urban youths embody their nation’s hopes and fears about the future.

Consequently, youth Internet access has been a core focus of China’s emerging digital policy.

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