China shut down more than 130,000 illegal Internet cafes in the country over a six year period, as part of crackdown to control the market, according to a new government report.
Internet cafes in China are highly regulated by the government, which can issue and revoke their licenses. Authorities have made it illegal for Internet cafes to serve minors under the age of 18, stating that the Web's content could endanger their well-being.
Last April, the Ministry of Culture issued new rules declaring that Internet cafes would be closed down if they were found admitting minors.
The Ministry of Culture said it will make the report public in a month's time. But in statements made to China's official Xinhua News Agency, the ministry said it is continuing to promote Internet cafe chains, while enforcing rules to stop the establishment of independently run Internet cafes. The ministry also plans on instituting harsher penalties for Internet cafes found admitting minors.
"Promoting Internet cafe chains allows the government to have more control," said Yu Yi, an analyst with Beijing-based research firm Analysys International. "The Internet cafe chains all adhere to the same standards on service and security."
Around a third of China's Internet population surfs the Web from Internet cafes. The Ministry of Culture said the number of Internet cafe users in China reached 163 million in 2010. The country's total Internet population stands at 457 million users.
There are currently 144,000 Internet cafes in China, according to the ministry, and close to 30 percent of them are operated by chain businesses.
China has invested heavily in systems to control how users access information on the Web.
Sites or content deemed too politically sensitive are blocked or taken down by government censors. This has included topics relating to the "Jasmine Revolution", a term an anonymous group of activists has been using in the last several weeks to urge the Chinese people to protest the government. Authorities have responded by preventing microblog searches on the term, as well as by arresting Chinese activists and deploying police patrols in cities across the country.
Despite efforts aimed at closing down Internet cafes, the number of people using Internet cafes to access the Web increased by 28 million people in 2010, according to the ministry. The rising total appears to be at odds with the closures, but over the past six years more legal Internet cafes have entered the market, Yu said. The ministry's report also does not say if some of the illegal cafes that were closed later reopened.
About half of the people who use Internet cafes in China are 18 to 25 years old, according to Analysys International. Nine percent of the users are under the age of 18. At the same time, 60 percent of the users have monthly incomes at 3000 yuan (US$456) and under.
China has the world's largest Internet cafe market, said Yu. "The leadership has been trying to regulate it for some time now," he said. China is actively closing down Internet cafes that don't meet regulations in an effort to standardise the way they operate, he added.
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