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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
Beijing's web users angry at shutdown
Idle Chinese staff at an internet cafe in Beijing
Not one internet cafe remains open in Beijing
Internet users in Beijing have reacted angrily to the closure of all the city's cyber cafes after a fire in one of them killed 24 people at the weekend.

They are accusing the city government of using Sunday's fire as an excuse to crack down on what is one of the very few arenas in China for free expression.


Our world has become a little smaller

Beijing student Fan Xuyu
Beijing has closed its 2,400 mostly illegal internet cafes and plans to let only 200 re-open, pending new regulations, a city government spokesman said.

But a BBC correspondent in Beijing, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, says that it is precisely the illegality of the majority of the cafes that attracts young people, operating as they do outside the Chinese Government's strict internet regulations.

'Scapegoat'

"You cannot stop everything just because of a fire" read one message posted on a popular chat room.

"It's a hassle, a real hassle," one student told Reuters news agency. "Twenty-four people dying is pretty bad, but the reaction is extreme."

But the state media lambasted the internet as a scourge on the nation's youth.

Scene of Sunday's fire
The fire at the weekend killed 24 people

"Don't let internet bars destroy our kids," read the front-page headline of a blistering article in the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily.

Chinese rules ban not only pornography, but foreign news sites and discussion of a host of topics, from human rights to government corruption.

An official hi-tech police - nicknamed "the great firewall of China" - keeps watch over the internet 24 hours a day.

Those cyber cafes which avoid the regulations by operating underground are at pains to protect their anonymity.

Death traps

Our correspondent says that many are potential death traps and few have any fire safety equipment.

Witnesses said customers at the unlicensed Lanjisu Cyber Cafe where the fire broke out had to rap at a bolted door to get in and out.

The cafe's manager, Zheng Wenjing, 36, from Beijing, handed himself in to authorities on Monday. He could face severe punishment.

Most of the victims of the fire were students - the cafe was in Beijing's university district - attracted by the cafe's cheap late-night internet rates.

There was only one exit to the room, and the windows were barred.

Twenty people died at the scene and four others in the hospital, the official Xinhua news agency reported. It said 13 people were treated for injuries.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"Not one internet cafe remains open"
See also:

26 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
16 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
05 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
11 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
06 Jun 02 | Business
22 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
26 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
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