A young girl in a purple dress and hat, both seemingly cribbed from the set of a budget Alice in Wonderland production, stumbles past a Beijing meeting room in skyscraper heels. This prompts Wang Dapeng, city manager of the Wang Yu Wang Ka internet café chain, to whip out his smartphone and show off an app.
Wang scrolls through headshot photos of girls, including one of the lady who just tottered past. Next to each smiling face is listed the girl's age, star rating (out of five), and price per hour.
"Customers can use this app to choose a girl to play video games with," Wang tells me, as we chat in the staff area of the internet café's branch in Sanlitun, Beijing's busy shopping area.
"The prices are chosen by the girls," he continues. "If they think they are beautiful and skilled at games they will put down higher prices. Customers rate them based on their gaming and communication skills. If guys are rich and find it boring to play games alone they find a girl, or even two or three. He can make a whole team."***
It might not sound like a particularly highbrow service, but this add-on is one of many measures high-end Chinese internet cafés like Wang Yu Wang Ka are taking to differentiate themselves from illegally-operating rivals that are causing an industry-wide image problem. It's a problem the government is cracking down hard on with a new three-month drive to flush out such illegal venues.
"We are doing our part to save the industry"
China's Ministry of Culture claims there are 14,000 illegally-operated internet cafés in the country. It said it revoked 2,000 licenses from internet cafés in China in 2014, and has invested around 20 billion Yuan ($3.1 billion/£2.1 billion) in the past year to aid the crackdown.
"While urban cafés mostly abide by the law, many in the outskirts and rural areas, where supervision is slack, choose profits over compliance," reported state-run news agency Xinhua last month. It added: "The campaign also aims to spot establishments that fail to provide a clean and spacious environment for customers, vowing to punish owners by revoking their licenses in severe cases."
How are these seedier places thriving in the WiFi age, and who frequents them?***
Founded in 1998, the Wang Yu Wang Ka chain has 373 branches in China including 13 in Beijing. The branch Wang is talking in today is vastly removed from the cigarette ash-sodden image of the illegal internet cafés the government is targeting. Walls and game stations are pristinely white, with gleaming new Apple computers surrounding a big circular glass fish tank. If Steve Jobs had designed Star Trek's Enterprise ship control room (and really liked goldfish), it would look like this.
All that is very impressive, but I ask Wang if his company's girl-shopping app might lead to some unsavoury situations between the workers and their customers. It doesn't quite seem to chime with the government's new anti-seedy regulations. But there seems to be little concern about the human shopping-style app fostering a potentially dangerous sense of entitlement among the male gamers who use them.
"That all depends on what the girl's mindset is like," says Wang. "The app is similar to [China's biggest messaging app] WeChat, people can chat. Most of the girls are freelance or students. They focus more on the games rather than having dinner with customers. If they play games together maybe ten times and become friends, they might go for dinner. If the girl agrees, they can also have sex. We don't intervene."
It is illegal for those under the age of 18 to use any of the 156,000 internet cafés in China, but the ministry says this rule is flagrantly flouted. This is a big reason why it's hard to suppress a stereotype of a Chinese internet café: endless smoky, factory-esque rows of computer hubs, each manned by a spotty male teenager who hasn't left his station for days.
The crackdown is motivated by more than just a desire to shift the grubby, nerdy image of these venues to something more wholesome. It follows internet cafés being linked, albeit tenuously in some cases, with crimes of varying seriousness, from accessing illegal porn and gambling sites to murder.
In October, three schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 13 murdered a teacher of theirs in Hunan province. Two of the children were later arrested in an internet café. And last July, a 17-year-old boy in Dongguan, Guangdong province was murdered in an internet café by a peer who slit his throat after a dispute.
Stories about the lengths of time some users spend glued to screens are common enough to continue tarnishing the image of China's internet café culture. Last month it was reported that a 24-year-old woman from Zhejiang province, who left home when she was 14 after a family argument, finally returned after a decade away. She was picked up by police for using a fake ID to access an internet café. She told authorities she had survived on handouts, playing video games in the daytime.
The industry's image in China has been particularly seedy since 2002, when 24 people died in an internet café fire in Haidan, Beijing. The café attracted large numbers of students by offering nighttime discounts. The blaze started at 2:30 AM one morning; witnesses said that iron bars on the windows trapped customers inside, sealing their fates and further charring the public image of such venues.
"Parents are now demonising the whole industry," says Wang. "Internet addiction among youngsters is quite serious. But our goal is to provide a place that is healthy, happy and regulated. When the government first saw our presence they felt a boost because we are different from others. Years ago 'internet café' was a synonym for being full of minors, dirty, messy and with people smoking and drinking in them. We are doing our part to save the industry."
Most low-end and illegally run internet cafes in China charge around four Yuan (63 cents/42p) an hour to use their computers. Wang Yu Wang Ka is trying to draw a Great Wall-sized line between such operators and its branches, charging 13-20 Yuan an hour for a premium environment and facilities.
They have cinema-style showcase rooms to host competitive gaming tournaments in, focusing their business on these events. As Wang pulls up star gamer profiles on a Minority Report-style touch screen in the lobby, workers hang enormous drapes advertising their next gaming competition. By targeting richer clients they're finding it easy to comply with the government's tough new regulations, and have created an impressively slick meeting place for the gaming community. Business is good.***
The Hao Fengjing internet café, located a few miles west of Wang Yu Wang Ka, is a touch more basic than its higher-end counterpart. Smoking has been forbidden here since the citywide ban kicked in last June, but cigarette scent still lingers from years of punters puffing. Reams of male gamers manoeuvre goblins and orcs around screens as manager Dong Peng heads into a poky office filled with weathered filing cabinets and safes.
In China, where authorities move to squash virtually any kind of dissent, not many people, to say nothing of business owners, are willing to criticise the government during an interview. Dong goes as far as to say that the authorities' tough regulations for internet cafés is "a bit unfair" on legitimately-run establishments such as his. Five years ago the chain had five outlets in Beijing. Today there are only two.
"When people play for 24 hours without stopping we ask them to take a free shower at a nearby place we have bought shower tokens from"
Dong says that on the outskirts of Beijing, away from the gaze of authorities, internet cafés accepting minors as customers are rife. He has worked hard to clean up his venue to be in line with the new regulations, though he admits that by charging four to five Yuan an hour for computer usage he doesn't attract the kind of clientele found at Wang Yu Wang Ka. It is the grottier illegal internet cafés which, rather than the higher-end places, that are his competition.
"I agree that the industry has an image problem," he tells me. "The government is trying hard to regulate it but it's so difficult to solve."
Many customers, it seems, are too used to standards now being stamped out by the new three-month clampdown. That one used to be able to freely smoke, drink, and spit in these places was a major selling point for many people.
"I don't know how a customer will behave until he sits down here," says Dong. "If he insists on smoking even after we say we have space for him downstairs to do it legitimately, or if he keeps spitting on the floor after our waitress cleans it up, we don't know how to deal with it."
To try and maintain a less pungent environment to keep up with the stringent new focus on cleanliness, Dong practically has to frog-march hardcore gamers into the shower. "When people play for 24 hours without stopping we ask them to take a free shower at a nearby place we have bought shower tokens from," he says. "We have to offer this to many people, around eight to ten a day. If they don't listen to us we cut their computer's power."
Internet cafés in China rely on gamers rather than web surfers, offering large screens and a more comfortable environment than, say, Starbucks. But the spread of WiFi and mobile gaming has taken its toll, combining with the new tougher regulations to create a pincer around places such as Hao Fengjing.
I get the impression that authorities would like to sweep places like this under the carpet, or at least turn them into gleaming super-tech hubs such as Wang Yu Wang Ka. (Wang thinks the government's clampdown "a good thing.") If the government's three-month crackdown does succeed in flushing out illegal internet cafés throughout China, it would go a long way in justifying the extra pressure it has put on legitimately-run but low-cost venues such as Hao Fengjing.
For his part, Dong says that despite the stereotype of the introverted male gamer associated with such venues, his place provides an important social hub. He has launched a financial scheme to help poor long-term customers with unexpected problems such as medical bills, and counts many gamers as friends.
"I have customers who have been coming here for 15 years," he says. "Now it's the winter and many of them don't have heating at home. They prefer to stay here with a soft sofa, watching films and sleeping."
"Yes, business is harder," Dong admits. "But we just follow the rules."