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The Chinese Columbine

How one tragedy ignited the Chinese government’s simmering fears of youth culture and the Internet.
August 2, 2002

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.

On the one hand, the government sees the high-tech sector as central to China’s long term economic interests, especially since joining the World Trade Organization last year. For example, the Shanghai schools now require all nine-year-olds to learn basic Internet skills. On the other hand, anti-computer rhetoric proliferates.

Parents worry that their kids stay out all night at the local cyber cafes and fall behind in their studies. In a country that places high value on family and community, the Internet is also perceived as socially isolating. One distinguished Chinese news anchor claimed that the Internet was preventing young people from developing a meaningful relationship with television, costing broadcasters a generation of potential consumers. The impact of Western “media trash” is feared not only by state authorities but also by members of the public, anxious to preserve cultural traditions virtually eradicated by the Cultural Revolution and only now regaining ground.

Seeking to protect youth from pornography, violence, superstition, and “pernicious information” (i.e. Western news), the state imposed strict new policies several years ago. No one under 16 can enter an Internet cafe unless accompanied by a teacher, and 16 to 18-year-olds can only go online after school hours or during vacations. Cafe owners are held legally responsible for the material their patrons access. The computers are directly linked to police headquarters, and an alarm rings when patrons access an inappropriate or prohibited Web site.

Of course, these restrictions only apply to “legal” Internet cafes. By some estimates, 50 to 90 percent of the cyber cafes in Beijing operate underground and have become the center of a thriving youth culture where teens come to play videogames, watch porn, and access western news. The Lanjisu Cyber cafe, the unlicensed operation where the tragedy occurred, offered a typical discount-students could go online all night for roughly $1.50. When the cafe had reached full capacity, they simply locked their doors. When the outer door burst into flames, the patrons had no escape.

Where does blame lie? Could our own culture warriors have resisted pointing out that the two boys involved were gamers? Could liberals have resisted observing the inconsistency of draconian social regulations combined with neglect of illegal operations? Doubtful.

Asked about whether media influences contributed to their misconduct, many Chinese acknowledge some concern. Yet, they were reluctant to find systemic causes for such an unprecedented act, noting the low rate of juvenile crime overall. Most Chinese explanations focus on the boys’ broken and tragic home lives. Additionally, they had been treated with indifference by school authorities and neglected by their neighbors. These troubled boys rapidly became poster children for the breakdown of social ties within the dwindling courtyard communities, which many see as symptomatic of urban China’s modernization and privatization.

The fires and the resulting crackdown can both be read as complex social and political reactions to rapid change. Whether understood as a product of the breakdown of traditional culture and community or of the uneven regulation of the emerging cyberculture, the incident reveals points of tension in the way that China is dealing with the combined forces of modernization, westernization, and commercialization. In such a charged context, the Chinese government has become increasingly reactive. Unable to respond to all trouble spots, they shift attention abruptly, literally and metaphorically putting out fires where they must and turning a blind eye when they can. The government was certainly using the fires as a pretext to reign in the emerging cyberculture, but they were also reassuring the public that they were ready to confront and master their own future shock. As in most moral panics, they acted because they were expected to do something, even if it were wrong. And when governments reach that state, they usually choose the wrong actions.

I wonder, how differently would this issue have played itself out in the United States?

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