British rule becomes only virtual reality

And with a few strokes of the computer keyboard, the motherland vanquished the evil British colonialists, and Hong Kong was free.

This week, a new CD-Rom computer game goes on sale in China, inviting a generation of school-children to re-fight the 1840-42 Opium War - only this time it is possible for China to win. Yang Nanzheng, who during his former 23-year stint with the People's Liberation Army used to design computer simulation war games, said: "China has a one-third chance of winning in the game, because the Qing Dynasty was very weak at that time. The best outcome is that China does not cede Hong Kong to Britain, but it is difficult to achieve this result. And even if Hong Kong is not given away, China still remains a very weak country."

Mr Yang, now games department manager at Gold Disc, a computer software company affiliated to the prestigious Qinghua University in Peking, said the new game would teach patriotism. "This is true to facts and can make children know about China's history and love the country," he explained, as he manoeuvred a couple of Chinese warships to sink a British vessel.

The corrupt and uncaring Qing Dynasty officials are presented as equal villains with the British in the CD-Rom. When the hero, a Mandarin scholar, goes in search of funds to fight the foreigner barbarians, he can try everything from flattery, beautiful girls, or the truth to win their support. But the Qing officials have a nasty tendency to repay him with a virtual beating or execution. Only if the player is skillful to raise enough money can the scholar then purchase warships and arm the Chinese generals. A series of five naval battles must then be fought to decide the fate of Hong Kong.

The Opium War CD-Rom took more than a year and 700,000 yuan (pounds 53,000) to develop, and was scrutinised by the political commissars at the State Press and Publishing Bureau. Mr Yang estimated that 2.5 million Chinese home computers now have a CD-Rom drive, and that the new game "can sell very well because of the return of Hong Kong". The advertising promises that the game is: "Very vivid, beautiful pictures, intense music, interesting plot."

Gold Disc's previous CD-Rom titles include Magic Eagle (Bloodshed in the suburbs), which is a fictional tale of Middle East peace-keeping troops, and historical war games featuring Bosnia, the Korean War, and Genghis Khan. The Opium War game, retailing at 78 yuan (pounds 5.80), will have a much higher initial print-run than other products, with 20,000 copies due to hit the China and Hong Kong markets at the end of this week.

But the biggest threat to Mr Yang's warriors these days comes not from the British but from land-based Chinese pirates whose respect for intellectual property rights ranks lower than Britain's historic regard for Chinese sovereignty. "We are very worried, so we want to publish it as soon as possible and collect our money back," said Mr Yang. "I am sure that pirated versions of the game will be out within one month."