"Sure, no problem, you can go to the Internet café," said Ms. Guo, the café's owner. We were negotiating over the telephone on filming web surfers during peak traffic time.
"Come by between seven and nine," she continued.
"Ok, between seven and nine in the evening," I replied.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|An already packed Beijing Internet café early before 8 a.m.|
"No, in the morning."
"What?? Are you sure?" I tried to keep down the creeping doubt in my voice, for fear of offending her.
"Oh, yes, most definitely there will be a lot of people," she insisted. "It's free of charge between seven and nine in the morning. Trust me, lots of people."
Connection slow going, but still packed
Given that her café normally charges a mere 30 cents an hour to go online, I wasn't sure free access would make that much of a difference.
And apart from the early hour, there was another good reason to be skeptical about the number of Internet users.
Getting online this month has been a frustrating experience in Beijing -- not because of government censors, but because of an earthquake at the end of December near Taiwan. The quake damaged several nearby underwater cables, disrupting internet services across the Asia-Pacific region, especially here.
For my colleagues, this has meant making tea, reading the papers, and watching the status bar crawl across the bottom of the computer screen s-l-o-w-l-y. On some days it has taken the better part of an hour just to enter our intranet site.
So it was with some astonishment when we arrived in the morning, bleary-eyed, and found the place -- which seats more than 300 people -- filled with young Chinese, mostly university age, pecking away at their keyboards.
All well before 8 am.
Trolling around the café, we found the usual suspects -- people on instant chatrooms, scrolling through blogs, or reading up on the latest news or celebrity gossip.
Many more were watching movies downloaded from the web. Apart from a wide selection of Chinese TV shows, concerts and films, there were also western choices (one guy was watching the original "Star Wars") and what appeared to be a healthy representation of Korean movies.
The overwhelming majority, however, were boys playing video games against each other – "Unreal Tournament" seemed very popular here.
I asked the duty manager whether traffic was this heavy throughout the day. He said it varied, but added that some regulars come for ten hours at a time. Most, he continued to say, usually dropped by to download a movie in the middle of the day.
That should be no surprise. Last week, the China Internet Network Information Center -- a government agency that monitors the industry -- reported that internet use in China last year had leapt almost 25 percent from the year before. That translates to 137 million web surfers, roughly ten percent of the country's population.
Among users, young Chinese aged 18 to 24 were the most active, clocking 21.5 hours on the Internet each week.
China keeping an eye on things…
The Chinese government has been paying close attention. Not only are young people surfing the web, they're policing it, too.
For example, authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen earlier this week introduced a team of 150 new "internet police." The average age is under 30, according to a Hong Kong newspaper, many of them recent college graduates with special police training. Officials claim they are as technically savvy as hackers.