XIANGYIN, CHINA Down a garbage-strewn back alley in the grimy Hunan town of Xiangyin, the Internet cafe is crammed. In the stifling basement room, three dozen twentysomethings are transfixed by their computer screens. I fork over one yuan (about 15 cents) to check my e-mail and the global headlines. The connection is so fast, I could be sitting in Toronto.
Xiangyin is a provincial backwater. But it has 60 or 70 Internet cafés, some legal, some not. The central government has declared that the information economy is crucial for China's prosperity, so it has encouraged the spread of broadband to the more remote towns and villages. Today, hundreds of millions of people have easy access to the Net, even in places where average household incomes are less than $1,000 a year and nobody can afford a computer.
In the gloom, a red-shirted kid is chatting on-line with a pal. "What are you talking about?" I ask. "Falun Gong," he says nonchalantly.
So much for censorship. Falun Gong is a banned spiritual sect, and public discussion of it is forbidden. But even the state can't regulate private Internet chat.
The kid, who's unemployed, says he comes to the Internet café every day. Chat, movies and video games are cheap, less than 30 cents an hour. He says all his friends come here, too.
"These small cities used to be isolated," says Guo Liang, one of China's foremost authorities on the social impact of the Net. "But now people have a window on the world." In a study he conducted for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Mr. Guo found that the Net is transforming daily life among young adults in places such as Xiangyin. They mostly use the Net for entertainment and chat. But they also use it for news.
"I love to read the negative news reports on-line, especially the common people's complaints," one focus-group participant said. "Those brave reports could never be released by the traditional media; only on the Internet is it possible to read them."
A woman Net user said: "All Netizens can participate in the discussions. I love to hear so many different voices on the Internet."
These two Net enthusiasts live in Yima City, a mining town deep in China's interior, where the average income is $700 a year. Few people there have college degrees. But they're hungry to connect, and more than a quarter of the population is now on the Net.
"China is the only country in the world where reading news is the No. 1 or No. 2 thing that people do on the Net," says Mr. Guo, who has obtained funding from Western think-tanks to further his research. "It means they're not satisfied with the traditional media."
The Net means that government efforts to censor foreign news are futile. Today, the booming population of young English-speakers can log on to CNN, the BBC and The New York Times.
When the SARS epidemic broke out in the summer of 2003, the government at first tried to stifle information. "But we just logged on to the WHO site in Geneva and found out everything," says Carrie Yang, a 22-year-old journalism student in Beijing.
Her friend Grace adds: "We can criticize whoever we want, because no one knows who we are."
Trying to control the Net, says Michael Ma, a 23-year-old Beijing businessman, is like "trying to contain fire with paper." Mr.Guo himself used to write a popular newspaper column about the Net that explained how to get around official firewalls.
But the Net has its downsides
-- pornography, violence and
a potential to corrupt the nation's youth by addicting them to
e-games. Mr. Guo's research says most Net users support the censorship of violence and porn. And the government has now banned kids under 18 from cybercafés so they'll go home and study. (Judging from what I saw in Xiangyin, this ban is not widely enforced outside the big cities.) It also gives a bigger voice to conspiracy theorists and extremists who would like, for example, to bomb Taiwan.
"The Net has opened up my mind to other points of view," says Grace. "But sometimes it makes me more confused than before."
The Net is also revolutionizing people's love lives. For Chinese kids, brought up in a culture that values emotional restraint, the Net is the one place where they can bare their hearts and souls. Millions of them are pouring their hearts out to people they meet
In Xiangyin, a lovely 18-year-old girl named Jiang Fen is chatting with a cyberfriend. Tiny cameras mounted on their computers transmit their pictures to each other. "I confide in him and tell him my moods," she says. Although they've been chatting for six months and live in the same town, she hasn't met him yet. "I don't know what I'd say to him in person," she says, blushing.
My favourite Net romance story concerns a friend named Helen. Her parents, who are farmers, had an arranged marriage. Next year, she, too, is getting married -- to a man she met on the Net.