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The Decline of China’s Internet Cafes

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China Power

The Decline of China’s Internet Cafes

Even as the Ministry of Culture tries to consolidate cybercafés, citizens turn to mobile devices to access the internet.

Yesterday Freedom House released a report on Internet censorship in China based on information they collected for their Freedom on the Net survey.

The report is especially interested in Internet censorship since the leadership transition that brought Xi Jinping to power last November. It not only examines the obstacles citizens face in getting Internet access, but also on what is censored, surveillance, and how citizens are punished by the state for their activities online.

One of the more interesting findings contained in the report was that 40 percent of China’s cybercafés are now owned by chains instead of small businesses.

According to the report, this is the result of “a ministry-led push to eliminate sole-proprietor locations by 2015.” The Ministry of Culture and other agencies involved in Internet censorship want to consolidate this industry in order to increase the efficiency of censorship and surveillance – and this is easier to achieve if there are fewer cybercafé chains to deal with.

Ironically, as the Ministry advances this initiative, fewer citizens are using cybercafés to get Internet access as online-capable mobile devices proliferate.

 “Mobile replaced fixed-line broadband as China’s preferred means of accessing the Internet for the first time in 2012,” the report notes.

In fact, cybercafé users have gradually declined in recent years from 36 percent in 2010 to just 22 percent of China’s total Internet population in 2012. Meanwhile over the same time period, mobile phone usage has risen from 66 percent of Internet users in China in 2010, to 76 percent of all users last year.

Still. Freedom House argues that censorship had “predictably intensified in advance of the leadership transitions” in November 2012 and March 2013. The more censored topics included anything relating to Tibet and Western media reports about China’s political leaders and their families’ accumulated wealth. Also, any content that was viewed as having “the potential to delegitimize CCP rule” had been systematically censored, according to Freedom House.

Finally, along with detail the techniques of China’s state-censorship the report discusses how Internet users’ rights are violated. For example, the report focuses on a 2012 amendment to China’s Criminal Procedure Law that, according to Freedom House, appeared “to strengthen the legal grounds for detaining suspects incommunicado if they were suspected of anti-state activity.” In addition, more online activists have been physically attacked, harassed, interrogated, and arrested – and many did not receive due process.

The report cites a lot of incidents occurring in Xinjiang and Tibet, and notes specifically: “After 2013 unrest in Xinjiang, at least twenty individuals were sentenced because they ‘used the Internet, mobile phones and digital storage devices’ to incite terrorism, local reports alleged, without elaborating.” Also, in response to Tibetans sending photos of self-immolations via mobile phones, Freedom House notes, “International monitoring groups documented unprecedented levels of surveillance targeting Tibetans, including searches of mobile devices.”

Elleka Watts is an Editorial Assistant at The Diplomat.