Chen used to spend his evenings in the corners of Shanghai's cheapest bars, whiling away the hours with his Sprite-and-beer shandies and a stack of car magazines. But last September, the 20-year-old engineering major discovered a new hangout. Ascending a narrow staircase to a windowless room, he found a place near several other men sitting alone, obscured by clouds of cigarette smoke. Chen (he declines to give his full name) is now devoted to this Internet cafe. In May he spent 32 hours straight here, working his way through six packs of Double Happiness cigarettes and relieving himself in a bucket by the stairs. "When our parents were young, they spent their spare time in Communist Youth League meetings," says Chen, eyelids puffy from sleep-deprived nights surfing the Web. "We fill our emptiness by living in another world."
Beijing has declared war on Chen's world. Authorities kicked off a nationwide crackdown this month against China's estimated 150,000 unlicensed Internet cafes, comparing them to the opium dens where young men slowly destroyed themselves a century ago. In mid-June, 25 people were killed when a pair of teens torched a Beijing cybercafe that had refused them entry. It was the capital's deadliest fire in decades, and the central government used the blaze as an excuse to order the closure of thousands of illegal outlets.
For several years the government has staged periodic cybercafe raids, usually on the ground that online pornography and violent computer games pose a moral hazard to the nation's youth. But such concerns are only a small part of the campaign to shut down what is, for many Chinese, the main artery to the Internet. What worries control-crazy officials is the Internet's tangle of unmanageable links, which give Chinese uncensored access to "reactionary" news and information sites. Since 2000, the number of Net users in China has quadrupled, to 38.5 million; by 2005 China is set to overtake the U.S. as the most wired nation in absolute terms.
In truth, most of the kids crowding around the computers aren't there to upload dissident manifestos or pages from, say, TIME, whose website is blocked in China. They are logging on to find fun. Near Shanghai's Jiaotong University, a student only pauses his online game, World Karate Domination Antics III, to upload a picture sent by a cyberbuddy. It's an image of a pouting, naked redheaded girl. He frowns: "I don't like funny-haired foreigners." Another picture streams in, this one of a Chinese teen. The cafe owner leans in and nods approvingly: "That's the best one we've seen all day."
What bothers Beijing most is that illicit gathering places exist at all. Less than one-quarter of China's 200,000 Internet cafes are licensed. Those that are officially approved are expected to spy on customers and report anyone who accesses banned sites. Although the Public Security Bureau has deployed a corps of Internet police to block surfers from offending websites, there's no way a few hundred officers can filter the whole Web and maintain blocks that stymie users for long. In less than three minutes, Chen is able to access a blocked Chinese news site, using a proxy server that cloaks his online movements. Next to him, a friend uses the same technique to get to a porn site. Four seats down, a thirtysomething woman takes a covert look at the teachings of Falun Gong, the outlawed meditation sect.