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Beijing's newest sports hero is a 120-lb. gamer

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"It used to be quite unprofessional. Now we get better treatment. As a national-team player, we can go to international competitions and all our costs are covered. As well, for example, when we played an international friendship game with Korea, we each got a minimum of 3,000 yuan [about $442], and if we won our match, we got 5,000 yuan."

Given that corporate-sponsored events can offer as much as a 30,000 yuan first prize, and players in China's newly founded domestic professional league earn a base monthly salary of 2,200 yuan before bonuses, gaming offers a chance at a pretty lucrative living in a country where migrant construction workers are lucky to earn 30 yuan a day.

Video games have exploded in a country that has nearly 400 million people under the age of 18 and an increasing access to broadband Internet connections.

Current estimates say there are about 87 million Internet users in China and about 14 million gamers as of the end of 2003, a year in which the number of Internet game players increased by 64 per cent, according to a report by the China Game Publishers' Association.

Rather than stand with their fingers in the dike that barely holds back the digital flood, Chinese officials quickly decided to embrace the trend, but on their terms.

Two goals were identified: One was to use the popularity of e-sports and on-line games (a companion category of video games in which players participate in games that are accessible on the Internet and are played by thousands of competitors at once) to further Chinese expertise in the field and to help increase China's already booming IT sector.

"The gaming industry is growing," says Kou Xiao Wei, vice-president of the Internet publishing department for China's General Administration of Press and Publication, the agency that approves content for all published materials in China. "Interest in gaming supports the growth of the Internet and is good for the national economy."

A program has been developed at Sichuan University to hatch a new generation of Chinese programmers, while tax incentives have been provided to software companies that can develop games with Chinese characteristics.

Mr. Kou's agency has launched the Chinese National On-line Gaming project, with a goal of developing 100 games in the next five years and reducing the country's reliance on foreign-made games.

That, in turn, helps with the second goal, which is to make sure that if Chinese young people are using the Internet and playing games on-line, they do it in an approved way.

"It is important for Chinese youth to play Chinese-approved games because most foreign games don't have limitations and there is unworthy content," Mr. Kou says. "There is sex and violence, mainly, but also anti-Chinese political statements.

"For example, we just [made changes] to the FIFA. There were teams from Taiwan and Tibet, suggesting that they are independent countries, and that is very bad, because that is not true. Some other games show a PLA [People's Liberation Army] soldier being killed and that is bad for patriotism."

Making sure that video games become a healthy part of growing up in China is part of the impetus behind the CEG, the domestic professional league that Mr. Su also plays in.

December will mark the conclusion of the first season for the CEG, a six-month undertaking in which teams from eight provinces competed against each other in a 14-game regular season as well as playoffs. Each of the eight teams has 16 players — chosen from a pool of 6,000 aspiring professional gamers in an April qualification tournament.

The Chinese national team was chosen from the ranks of the 128 players in the CEG.

"Video games and on-line games have a bad image," says Patrick Wang, the CEG's director of operations. "Young people spend a lot of time and a lot of money on them in cyber cafés. In China this has caused some social problems — and in some other countries too. Kids steal money from their parents and their schoolmates so they can play games, and in Beijing [in June, 2002] two kids set fire to a cyber café after a dispute with the owner, and [25] people died, so many parents ask their children not to play video games.

"But young children have the right to their own kind of entertainment. With the development of the Internet and technology, if you force people away from these games, it's not realistic. People can play at home. So you have to lead them to play in a healthy way, so we have developed sports-type characteristics."

They've also developed a healthy backdrop for the likes of Mr. Su.

"My parents used to be against how much time I spent on video games," he says, signing an autograph and sending another fan home happy. "They thought it was taking away from my studies, but now, with my success, they are happy. They think it's going to be good for my future."

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