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Chinese Police Arrest Suspects in Internet Cafe Fire - 2002-06-18

Chinese police have arrested two teenage boys for starting a deadly fire at an Internet cafe. The fire prompted the Beijing city government to close all Internet cafes, and university students are feeling the effects of the order.

The Beijing city government says the two boys used gasoline to start a blaze at the Lanjisu Internet café early Sunday out of revenge. The statement released Wednesday says two weeks earlier, the boys had argued with employees of the café. It says the boys have confessed, and identifies them only by their surnames: Mr. Zhang, aged 13, and Mr. Song, 14-years-old.

Beijing's worst fire in a half century killed 24 people, mostly university students. The café was operating illegally in Haidian district, home to China's most prestigious universities. The door had been bolted and the windows barred - trapping the victims inside.

It is a common practice here - where most of the 2,400 Internet cafes are unlicensed and want to avoid police scrutiny.

Within hours of the fire, the government shut down all the city's cafes to undergo safety inspections and license checks.

Yet talk to students in the area, and they worry not so much about their safety, but about how to get online.

This third year English major at Beijing's Language and Culture University speaks only on condition of anonymity. She says it is unreasonable for the government to close Internet cafes, because they are a valuable resource for students. She says she does not care if the café is licensed or not, as long as she can get online fast.

But easy Internet access frightens the Chinese government. China routinely cracks down on cyber cafes, and maintains tight controls over the flow of information.

Licensed Internet shops are required to keep a log of customers and install software to track Web sites that are viewed. Police reportedly raid Internet cafes to check for keywords seen as subversive.

Only 200 internet cafes in Beijing - less than one tenth of the city's cyber shops - have licenses to operate.

One of the graduate studenst in computer science at Qinghua University says he agrees many underground cafes have poor safety standards. But he says if the authorities are sincere about protecting people from harm, they would make it easier for Internet businesses to get a license.