Anatomy of a Chinese 网吧 (cybercafe)

April 29, 2008, [MD]

One of the most striking things in China, and a very important feature for foreigners, is the ubiquitous cybercafes. I made heavy use of them the first time I was living in China, in 2000-2001, when I had no internet at “home” (in the student dormitory). The second time, when I was living in Hangzhou, I had broadband internet at home, but still used them occasionally. And of course, on this trip, all my surfing has been done through cybercafes. They have changed extremely little since 2001, which is interesting for a technology that is in so rapid development. Here are some superficial thoughts (based only on own experiences, not on any study or external sources).

**Description\ **You can find cybercafes in any city in China, however they almost never have English signs (why would they?). Most of them are called 网吧 (wangba) or internet bar, but some have more innovative names. Usually there is a sign on the street and a staircase leading to a basement, or the second floor of a building. Once you enter, it’s a very large room that might hold 100-200 computers. Near the entrance is a desk, which also sells snacks and cold drinks. There are many signs at the entrance about people under 18 not being allowed access, and there are rules about the minimum distance between schools and cybercafes.

I don’t have membership at any cybercafe, so I go to the desk, pay 10 RMB deposit, and receive a card with a username and a code. Regulars have their own accounts, and don’t need to “check in” like this. In recent years, internet cafes are supposed to check your ID and write down your details before letting you log on. I am not sure how much this is enforced - since I am a foreigner they mostly don’t bother, although one or two has asked to see my passport.

You can then choose any computer. Two things have changed slightly since 2001. Firstly, the computers are turned off between customers, probably to save electricity (often the occupancy is far under 100%). I am guessing there might have been some central edict about this, because it never was the case before, and now it has been at every single place I visited. So I choose a location, turn on the computer, which boots Windows XP (in a few cases Vista). All the cafes use a cybercafe management software to deal with login and accounting. I type in my password and get the Windows desktop. Often number of icons are limited etc.

Not a single cybercafe I have visited so far had Firefox, which is very frustrating. I can’t remember the last time I had to use Internet Explorer for any extended amount of time. This should be a huge opportunity for some Chinese open source advocacy group - we are talking potentially hundreds of millions of new users here!

The computers are all stand-alone tower computers, with fairly large screens, and headphones (sometimes headsets). It’s interesting that they never experiment with multi-head computers, but one of the reasons (apart from the fact that they are running Windows) could be that the computers are frequently used for gaming. Many cybercafes seem to have disabled the USB drive, which is very frustrating, when trying to write an article on your laptop, and post it online at the cybercafe.

*Internet access\ *The one who can understand China’s internet policy will get a prize from me - it’s highly erratic. Generally speaking, they block far more Chinese controversial webpages, than English ones, however there seem to be a lot more pages blocked this time than the last time I was in China. Often whole newspapers, or whole blog hosts are blocked for just one article/blog. This is the advantage of having your own domain I guess (reganmian is still not blocked). Worse than that, using foreign Web 2.0 applications is very slow - I could not manage to play a video on Youtube, even though it did display, and GMail is highly erratic, Meebo and other IM clients don’t work at all. Of course, China has a huge amount of Web 2.0 applications themselves, and they all load very fast. The advantage of having people post their pictures, videos and blogs on Chinese sites, is of course that the government has much more fine-grained control with this.


Almost all users are young males, with the occasional female. This probably depends a lot on where it is located - at the cybercafes near the university where I taught, the gender balance was a lot more equal. Generally the environment is quite “male friendly” - dark, very smoke filled (there is an ashtray next to every computer), and often noisy. The two main activities are playing online games (Counterstrike was the most popular back in the days, not sure what is hot these days), and watching videos online. People who play online games can be quite noisy, shouting into their headsets, and to their friends on the next row over.

Local services\ An interesting detail is that cybercafes also provide local storage of popular media - to save bandwidth and offer better service. There is often an icon on the frontpage to a page hosted on 192.168.x.x (local server, not available on the internet), with fancy webpages offering access to hundreds of movies, TV shows, music etc. This is all for watching online. I just watched a two hour German movie about a huge fire in a tower, the quality was quite good. Since the webpages are so professional, I am assuming that there is a company that designs these local media solutions and sells/rents them to the internet cafes, it would be interesting to know how this works - how it gets updated etc. (Of course, it wouldn’t stand very long against the copyright police).

Pricing and economy\ The price of going online hasn’t changed since 2001, although the price of food has almost doubled. It’s still usually 2 yuan per hour (30 cents with today’s exchange rates). Some cafes actually have one row of computers that only offer games, and the local media server, at a cheaper rate. I think - but have no evidence for this - that the cafes are usually individually owned. At least, I have never seen any evidence of any chains. There is very little differentiation except for in Beijing and Shanghai, where you might find more upscale, and cleaner cafes, for more money. The initial investment for hundreds of computers capable of gaming must be huge, and I wonder how quickly the recoup it. One important detail is that the cafes usually stay open 24 hours a day (labor is very cheap, so it makes sense to exploit the capital). Students at my university would often stay up all night, because it was the only place girls and boys could hang out together - the dormitory closed it’s doors at 11, and girls could never go to visit boys rooms. There was a special rate from 11PM to 7AM.

Final thoughts\ I wonder how the market for internet cafes is developing. The very specific target group makes it clear that many people access the internet from other places. One factor is that it has become very much more common to get broadband internet at home, and I wonder if many universities now offer this in dormitories too (I don’t know about the last one). Even in my friend’s apartment building, where rooms cost only 40\$ per month and are absolutely tiny, with no amenities (no hot water, heating, etc), there are many who have broadband internet (I saw notices posted on the wall). Others access it through teir office. As far as I know, wireless internet access is still very rare, but this might be changing - and is probably very different in Beijing and Shanghai.


Stian Håklev April 29, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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