It was a tortuous drive down some of the city's narrowest hutong lanes to arrive at the drab building that housed the Peking Municipal PSB Computer Safety Supervision Department. If the city had been hoping to intimidate its growing number of wired citizens, it had chosen the wrong setting. This office was firmly rooted in Old China; the courtyard and the corridors inside were draped with the officers' laundry, rows of gymshoes were drying on window ledges, and a group of scruffy policemen were idling their time away in the early summer sun. Inside, it was a steep hike up to the fifth floor (no lifts in this bastion of hi-tech supervision), past dilapidated rooms in which many of the staff were soundly asleep.
Along one dark corridor was the office of Peking's Internet police - both of them. The younger one sat at his desk, with piles of registration forms several feet high at his elbow. The elder, and more senior, was playing Minesweeper on a desktop computer. Strewn across one table were several pirated software discs, of the kind that the government is supposed to be stamping out.
Commercial and private access to the Internet in China became available only a year ago, and all companies offering access must route their connections through gateways set up by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, or by one of three other government bodies. Nobody is sure how many people in China have access to the Internet, but the number is growing rapidly and has probably passed 100,000.
The government knows that information technology is crucial to the country's economic development, but also fears that it is undermining its control of the media. So in January it called a three-month halt to Internet connections while it sorted out the new regulations.
The following month it announced that all users must register with the PSB. It is bad enough having my phone monitored, but did the PSB now plan to read my e-mail messages as well, I asked the younger policeman, after filling out the necessary forms in duplicate. "No, no, no,'' he promised. But China did intend to block access to home pages such as Playboy and other material "harmful to China'', he added.
Under an edict signed by the prime minister, Li Peng, anyone signing up for an Internet link in China has subscribed to a list of regulations that include a ban on "criminal activities that damage state security'', "disclosing state secrets'', and spreading information that could "impair social safety'' or was pornographic.
In Peking's first cybercafe, situated in the coffee lounge of the Peking Concert Hall, counter-revolutionaries are thin on the ground, but you can see why an authoritarian government might be so concerned about the freedoms of cyberspace. The cybercafe is the marketing project of 33-year- old Zhang Shuxin who, after running a successful paging business, opened her 1+Net dial-up network seven months ago. She offers full Internet access or access to the Chinese-language "Information Highway Space" service only; 90 per cent of the 2,000 subscribers so far have opted for the domestic version. "A lot of users do not understand English, and do not know much about computers,'' she said.
The most frequently used of the 150 services on Information Highway Space are "Finance Street'' (offering stock market information, business information and financial news), e-mail, the dozens of electronic forums and the "electronic cafe''. While most of China's embryonic cyber companies simply offer an Internet connection, Ms Zhang sees IHS as China's answer to America Online or CompuServe, and welcomes the new regulations. "It is a good thing because at last the PSB admits that it is legal. Before this, you did not know if the PSB would stop you or not. Now as long as you register, it is legal.'' Planned services include on-screen concert ticket booking, on-screen academic courses in collaboration with Peking University, and a link-up between 1+Net's Matchmaker dating service and Peking Television's popular Let's Meet Tonight programme.
In the cybercafe, newbies are allowed free use of the four 1+Net computer screens to sample the offerings. In the "Feelings'' forum, most of this year's messages are words and poems of regret about the death of "Rose'', an active Information Highway Space forum participant until she died in January. In the "English Party'', one maths teacher has put out an appeal for an English Bible. In the wake of China's army manoeuvres near Taiwan, the "Military'' forum is still deep in discussion about the range and accuracy of the mainland's M-9 missiles.
In a view that would not be openly aired on China's state-controlled media, one subscriber had boldly written: "I met some Taiwanese people and they said now the economic level on the mainland is so low, only when it reaches the same standard as Taiwan can we talk about reunification. Force is sometimes threatening and can be applied when necessary. But force cannot really persuade people's hearts, cannot really frighten them.''Reuse content