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Goodbye, Wangba: The Rise & Decline of Internet Bars in China

"Wangba" grafitti points to the entrance to an internet bar in China.

A group of children outside a "wangba" internet bar in China.

From NetEase:

Goodbye, Internet Bar

2002’s large fire at the “Lan Ji Su” internet bar resulted in a strict crackdown of internet bars for as long as ten years. However, what really caused people to say goodbye to internet bars was not government policy but the internet’s transformation towards mobile devices.

US President Bill Clinton at an internet bar in Shanghai, China.

1995, China’s first internet bar “3C+T” was established in Shanghai, and operated in the mode of an internet cafe. In the ten years that followed, internet bars “sprouted up like spring bamboo after the rain”, appearing on streets and in the alleys throughout China. Photo is of 1998, when United States president Bill Clinton was visiting Shanghai, and visited an internet bar on Shaanxi West Road in Shanghai.

Young Chinese using computers at an internet bar in China.

At the end of the ’90s, the internet quietly entered people’s field of vision. Because computers at the time were relatively expensive, most households did not purchase computers, with internet bars thus becoming the main place people went online. Photo is of 2002, an internet bar in Beijing. Photo: Cai Daizheng

An second-hand store in China selling computer monitors.

The prevalence of online gaming attracted China’s earliest batch of faithful netizens, and the internet bar industry thus entered its golden age, becoming a new mecca of leisure for people. Photo is of 2002, of a second-hand store in Beijing filled with second-hand computers collected from internet bars. REUTERS

Young Chinese at an internet bar in China.

At the time, there was a resounding saying: “If you want to get rich, open an internet bar”. Other than computer usage and overnight use fees, internet bars also relied on selling online gaming points/currency cards and QQ currency to make money. The daily income for larger internet bars could reach thousands of yuan. Photo is of 2005, of a packed internet bar in Chongqing, with later customers having to wait in line. Photo: Jiang Shangou/Dongfang IC

Young girls at an internet bar in China.

Internet bars became a bridge for young people to interact with the world, as well what many post-’80s generation regard as an essential memory of their youth. Photo is of 2003, inside an internet bar in Sichuan, where several students try to avoid a reporter’s camera. Photo: Ling Chen/CFP

Young men asleep at a dirty internet bar in China.

Owing to a lack of oversight/supervision, a lot of violence and sexual activity occurred in internet bars, which became known as gathering places for society’s idlers and such people. News of youth becoming addicted to the internet also began appearing in newspapers. Photo is of 2005, when angry parents of a student in Fuzhou whose grades have dropped because of becoming engrossed with the internet reported a “black [illegal, immoral] internet bar” to the government Administration for Industry and Commerce. Han Xiao/CFP

A Chinese monk using a computer.

Photo is of 2000, Shandong, as a monk browses information about Buddhism at an internet bar. With regards to the various problems concerning the internet at the time, he made a very zen remark: “If a monk is guilty, the guilt should not apply to all monks; if a monk is to be punished, the temple should not be punished.” Photo: Yue Qiang/CFP

An exhibit for the "Lan Ji Su" internet bar fire that killed 25.

A shift in the internet bar industry occurred on 2002 June 16. Early that morning, Beijing’s “Lan Ji Su” internet bar was set on fire by four middle school students. When the fire occurred, the door had been locked by the owner to prevent customers from running away [without paying], so the customers were trapped within, resulting in 25 deaths, half of which were students. Photo is of 2005, of the “Haidian Public Safety Museum” exhibiting a reconstructed scene of the Lan Ji Su internet bar fire. Photo: Xiao Yi/CFP

Chinese schoolchildren participating in an anti-internet bar school activity.

The “Lan Ji Su” incident shocked the entire country, with various universities, middle schools, and primary schools launching huge “stay away from internet bars” educational campaigns. 2002 November 19, the Nanpu No.2 Primary School in Wenzhou city held a “just say ‘no’ to internet bars” activity, and established an “oriole” supervision team comprised of elementary school students. Photo: Lu Chunyu/CFP.

Chinese schoolchildren form the Chinese characters for "stay away from internet bars".

Starting from 2002 November 15, the “Regulations on the Administration of Business Sites of Internet Access Services” went into effect, with prohibiting minors from entering internet bars being a primary focus. Photo is of 2009 September 16, where Anhui Huaibei Taoyuan Coal Mine Primary School students used their bodies to form the characters for “Stay Away from Internet Bars”. Photo: Ma Zhen/Dongfang IC

Government regulators inspect an internet bar in China.

The “Regulations” stipulated that internet bars not admit minors, conspicuously display a sign prohibiting minors from entering at the entrance, and to check and register the identity of internet users. Photo is of 2006, as law enforcement conduct a surprise check of internet bars in urban Fuzhou. Photo: Yang Enuo, Lu Luyang/CFP

Young Chinese children at an internet bar.

Photo is of 2004, where an internet bar in Zhengzhou is being investigated. Upon seeing the reporter, many schoolchildren taking advantage of their time off to go online quickly hid [from the camera]. Photo: Ma Jian/CFP

Internet bar shuttles wait outside school gates in China.

Regulations also stipulate that “internet bars” may no longer be present within 200m of primary and middle schools, but this hasn’t stopped primary and middle school students from going to internet bars. Photo is of 2006, outside a college in Hefei city, where an internet bar shuttle greets students at the school’s gate. Photo: Huang He/CFP

A crowd of Chinese people at the bust of an illegally operated internet bar.

The government launched a clean up/rectification of internet bars throughout the country, including requiring a real name registration system, supervision of minors going online, multiple supervision of internet bars, suspending the issuance of licenses, etc. Photo is of 2003, in Sichuan Suining, where Industry and Commerce Bureau enforcers received reports from the public, and raided three unlicensed internet bars. Photo: Xie Xin/CFP

An illegal internet bar busted inside a building that says "urinals".

From 2003 onwards, the country implemented the “no new independent internet bars” policy. Independent internet bars are internet bars that are individually operated in contrast to internet bar chains. Photo is of 2005, Beijing Fengtai, as law enforcement personnel uncovered a black [illegal] internet bar in a room/building labeled “urinals”. Photo: Pu Feng/CFP

Government regulators inspect an internet bar in China.

10 years of government regulation and supervision hasn’t curbed the development of internet bars. Photo is of 2005, Fuzhou, where an enforcement officer is investigating an illegally-operated internet bar. Photo: Han Xiao/CFP

Chinese using computers at an internet bar in China.

What has actually caused the decline of internet bars is the popularization of [owning] personal computers as well as the assault of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers. Photo is of 2006, inside an internet bar in Tibet Lhasa.

A couple in a "couple's booth" at an internet bar in China.

According to statistics, there were a total of 136k internet bars throughout China in 2012, 10k less than in 2011, the first drop in the total number of internet bars since 2004. Photo is of 2006, where a pair of lovers use the internet in a couple’s booth.

Chinese youth playing online games at an internet bar.

Among the 670 registered internet bars in Shanxi Taiyuan, there are over 80 declaring that they are closing down, which is a closure rate exceeding 10%. 2009 December 24, young people using the internet at an internet bar in Shanxi Taiyuan. Photo: Shan Qing/CFP

Elderly volunteers patrol internet bars in China.

2013, after ten years of being frozen, the Ministry of Culture announced that it is lifting the prohibition against independent internet bars. However, the change in policy will still find it difficult to reverse the internet bar industry’s decline. Photo is of 2014 August 5, in Sichuan Luzhou, as members of the local community elderly volunteer internet bar oversight group make their rounds visiting internet bars. Photo: CFP

"Wangba" grafitti points to the entrance to an internet bar in China.

With the rise of mobile internet, internet bars that were once popular and could be found everywhere have now become a sunset industry. Photo is of 2008, of signs pointing to an internet bar in Shanghai. Photo: Xu Hede/Dongfang IC

Comments from NetEase:

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网易浙江省温州市手机网友 ip:218.73.*.*

Those who have stayed overnight, been too tired, watched a movie in an internet bar, ding me.

网易广东省深圳市手机网友 ip:112.97.*.*

No matter what, internet bars carried the youths of many people.
CS, Chuanqi, Red Alert. (in no particular order.)

网易美国手机网友 ip:75.135.*.*

The decline of internet bars is only because everyone has a computer now, so there’s really no reason to make such a big fuss about it.

jlmwjgdjaj [网易江西省新余市手机网友]:

Turns out when I used the computer every day, my eyesight didn’t become bad, but ever since I could go on the internet with my mobile phone, my eyes have gotten worse and worse.

网易广东省深圳市手机网友 ip:112.97.*.*

Now when I think about how I used to play CS all night in internet bars back then, it is still a cherished memory.

网易山西省太原市手机网友(171.117.*.*):

2000 Red Alert, 2001 CS, 2002 Chuanqi, 2003 Diablo, 2004 Warcraft 2, 2005 Menghuan, 2006 Chenhai3c [Warcraft RPG map], 2007 WC3, 2008 DOTA… 2014 DOTA2… Anyone more or less the same as me?

网易浙江省温州市手机网友(60.181.*.*): (responding to above)

Chuanqi; Sifu; Qiannian; Yitian 2; Moxiang; Red Alert; Starcraft; CS; Chuanshi; Jianxia 1, 2, and 3; Rexue Jianghu; Zhuxian; Kating Che; Crazy Arcade; DNF; Yongbing Tianxia; Dantou Qibing; Quanqiu Shiming; Tianxia 3; Datang Haoxia, Datang Wushuang 2, League of Heroes, Jiu Yin Zhenjing

丨窗口灬 [网易广东省手机网友]: (responding to above)

Damn, are you two professional gamers?

琴音未了 [网易黑龙江省哈尔滨市手机网友]:

I loved online gaming with friends in the internet bar, so awesome~ fuck…

网易天津市手机网友 [小神J0YZ] 的原贴:

Internet bars maybe doomed? Don’t be ridiculous, you think you can put together a few pictures and say they’re doomed? Garbage editor. Right now internet bars are all going high-end, with really good machines, trending towards professional gaming. Going online has even gotten more expensive, three if not four yuan, and some are even seven yuan an hour. The environment/premises are comfortable, and there’s no lack of people.

网易广东省深圳市手机网友 ip:112.97.*.* (responding to above)

Exactly!

网易广东省手机网友(157.122.*.*):

From 1997 to 2000, Quake, Red Alert, and Age of Empires. 2000 to 2006 was the craziest times of CS and everyone playing together in the internet bar, with CS internet bar competitions everywhere. Warcraft was high-end as before, because after all few people knew how to really play, but the WCG competitions hooked people. Online games [probably referring to MMORPGs] I very rarely played, because I felt they were a waste of money and time, but back then Chuanqi, Tiantang, RO were also especially popular. After 2005, it was World of Warcraft and DOTA that were in vogue, but unfortunately I had already begun entering society [begun working], so I didn’t play much. After that, stuff like CF I felt had already become retarded, and LOL [League of Legends] was a copy of Dota, all stuff by Ma Huateng [Chairman of Tencent] that I wasn’t fond of. I’m a post-’80s generation. Those who have similar recollections, give this a ding!

Oh yeah, at the beginning of 2000, there was also a type of quiet person, those that were in chat rooms (which has probably already vanished by now). Back then, internet chat rooms were all crazy, haha.

雷帝嘎嘎 [网易广西贵港市手机网友]: (responding to above)

Chat rooms quiet? I remember around 2002, back then, voice chatting was popular, and there was never ending noise assaulting my ears.

dianaross [网易天津市网友]:

The generation of people with their heads down [looking at their phones] were thus born.

老痰酸菜面 [网易江苏省南通市手机网友]:

Without internet bars, [China] would be be the same as North Korea.

Written by Fauna

Fauna is a mysterious young Shanghainese girl who lives in the only place a Shanghainese person would ever want to live: Shanghai. In mid-2008, she started chinaSMACK to combine her hobby of browsing Chinese internet forums with her goal of improving her English. Through her tireless translation of popular Chinese internet news and phenomenon, her English has apparently gotten dramatically better. At least, reading and writing-wise. Unfortunately, she's still not confident enough to have written this bio, about herself, by herself.

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