The startling story out of China's southern town of Guangzhou this week of a 30-year-old man dying of exhaustion after a reported three-day online gaming binge may be an odd curiosity in the West, but it underscores growing concerns about Internet addiction in this country of more than 160 million Web surfers.
With a little more than 10 percent of China's 1.3 billion population now online – thanks in large part to a booming economy and the nearly 113,000 Internet cafes that dot the country – the past few years have seen a rash of Internet addiction issues popping up and, recently, a serious governmental backlash against them.
Government effort to 'purify' the Internet
Responding to Chinese President Hu Jintao's call in April of this year to "purify" the Internet and nurture "an Internet culture with Chinese characteristics," the Chinese government sponsored Xinhua News Agency and other state-run media began printing stories detailing how Internet addiction had contributed to a slew of real-life problems with minors, such as academic failure, petty crimes and even suicide.
In fact, earlier this year, Reuters reported that police spokesman Wu Heping declared at a news conference that almost 80 percent of juvenile criminals in China had been seduced by violent and pornographic material on the Internet.
Speaking in support of Hu's campaign against indecency online, Wu explained, "In recent years, from the cases we have discovered, the proportion of young people guilty of cheating, rape or robbery who are given to using the Internet or have been corrupted by online filth is very high."
Earlier this year, NBC's Ian Williams reported on some of these kids and the rise of boot camp style programs where Chinese families were paying upward of $1,200 – well in excess of the average Chinese salary – to help their children beat their Internet addictions.
Since those reports aired, the Chinese central government has enacted a number of measures designed to slow what it has deemed a scourge on the moral fabric of Chinese society.
|VIDEO: Battling Internet addiction in China|
Crack down – cap on playtime
In addition to banning persons under the age of 18 from Internet cafes, the government has placed a ban on the construction of any additional ones in 2007 and placed a time cap of five hours on minors who play popular online games like "World of Warcraft" and "Counterstrike."
Under the capping system, minors playing games that are credit-based (meaning they earn points to upgrade items and powers) would be allowed to play three hours and earn full credits. Those players who played beyond those three hours would only receive half credits and after five hours the player would earn nothing. Gamers over the age of 18 would be able to play without any restrictions on their playing time.
However, in the months since these policies were enacted, it is clear that regulation has not been as successful as hoped.
As noted on popular gaming and Western media blogs, gamers soon discovered loopholes or wrote patches that allowed them to hack the anti-addiction software. Even those players without the technical expertise learned quickly to simply create additional characters or logins for their game of choice and they could play to their hearts' content.
I recently popped my head into an Internet cafe here in Beijing and the "mogui" ("World of Warcraft" addicts) were lined up row after row, slashing away at water elementals and other mystical creatures.
Few were eager to talk about the anti-addiction campaigns – most were deeply immersed in a quest to upgrade their epic armor. But they all noted that as frustrating as the restrictions were, the policies were rarely enforced; and if they were, the worst that could happen is three hours later they would have to switch to a different game or just go home.
Anti-addiction laws or censorship?
Despite the dubious success of these government policies, critics have been quick to point out the real-world consequences that have come with the government's increased interest in the digital world.
Though the rule is often ignored, Chinese gamers who want to play video games at Internet cafes are expected to register using their state-issued identity cards. These and other restrictions over the years have been part of what critics describe as a larger plan to censor the dissemination of materials deemed too racy or controversial by the government.
The larger etchings of this supposed campaign were further revealed just last week when an article in the government-owned Shanghai Daily reported on the blocking of more than 18,400 "pornographic and indecent" Web sites. Although sites were closed ostensibly to prevent pornographic material from being viewed by minors, angry reports soon began to circulate in the blogosphere that many personal blogs had also been blocked in the roundup.
The fact that these blockings came in the lead up to the opening of the 17th National People's Congress only further goaded bloggers and added fuel to the belief that "anti-addiction" laws are being employed for censorship.
Part of the process?
At a recent panel discussion hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China titled, "Under the Digital Influence," one of the panelists, David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia and the author of a popular China blog called Siliconhutong.com, explained how the Chinese government has approached the Internet since its inception in China. Wolf suggested that new ideas typically go through a four step cycle: 1) Ignorance 2) Fear 3) Experimentation 4) Acknowledgement.
On issues such as the censorship of bloggers and gaming addiction, Wolf noted that the Chinese government appears to be somewhere between steps three and four as it tries to find a middle ground between embracing the economic and social value that come with increased online networking and regulating the sometimes critical views being expressed in cyberspace.
What does this mean for the short-term future of the Internet in China? Expect more two steps forward, one step back moments as the Chinese government attempts to harness the power of the Web and break an addiction to cyberspace that appears innocuous enough, but this week belied its deadly potential.