BEIJING -- The hazy scene at the Internet Cafe would seem to be everything that a plugged-in futurist would predict: Dozens of young people sit here each day, slouched over computers, hacking away to their hearts' content.
They do so despite new rules that require Internet users to register with the police and pledge not to harm the state.
The computer users are the vanguard of what may soon be the biggest information network in the world. While up to 50 million people around the world are believed to use the Internet regularly, China is planning a system that can handle 180 million users.
Yet a closer look shows that, even in the far reaches of cyberspace, China is going its own way, successfully limiting access and cutting the free-wheeling heart out of the information age.
In China's version of the Internet, only a handful are able to log onto the communications network familiar to most international users. Those who do log on, whether they call up controversial information on human rights or innocuous data on economics, must reckon with police surveillance and possible criminal prosecution.
Most other users access a watered-down version of the Internet that carefully filters out controversial material and allows communication only between users in China.
"They can control the Internet for 98 percent of the people," said Steve Guerin, a Beijing-based computer consultant. "They can read and filter e-mail, and they can prevent you from going to a site."
The Internet Cafe, for example, features four terminals hooked into a Chinese-language version of the Internet that cannot access outside lines. Most use the system as a way to make friends in China.
"The main thing about this is that you can send messages to people and get to know them," said Chen Weidong, an advertising salesman who stopped by the cafe after work. "I've never used this to get any information, except about a [Chinese] company I thought of selling ads to."
China's half-hearted embrace of the Internet is being repeated in many other authoritarian countries.
Vietnam, too, is trying to block out the salacious and the subversive, while Singapore has unleashed Net-surfing censors to police the public bulletin boards for unwanted material.
China, however, has the most ambitious plan to control the Internet.
Although many information experts say the Internet cannot be censored and will inevitably lead to the decay of Communist rule, China is methodically putting in place a series of filters and fire walls that are effectively limiting the Internet's potential threat to Beijing's information monopoly.
The goal: a communications network that allows users to exchange economic information and harmless gossip but that cuts out the politics and pornography -- the "poisonous weeds" of Western culture that Chinese leaders have been trying to stamp out since opening up the country nearly two decades ago.
China is not without experience in reining in new technologies.
Not too long ago, fax machines were supposed to usher in China's democratic revolution, but the judicious use of phone taps on fax lines made it easy to see who was receiving seditious material -- and then to arrest the person or cut his line.
Likewise, satellite and cable television was seen as another ZTC quick technological fix for China's atrophied body politic.
But when communications mogul Rupert Murdoch, for example, boasted that his Star TV, which carried British Broadcasting Corp. news, would help topple dictatorships, China told Mr. Murdoch to get rid of the BBC or lose his license to sell programs in China.
Within a month, the BBC was gone, and now even Star TV's music video channel doesn't dare play music that is in disfavor with China's censors.
The Internet is more complicated than faxes or satellite TV, but the government has an array of weapons that it is slowly bringing into play.
Its main advantage in keeping out the world is that few computer links to the international Internet exist. China has no equivalent of unencumbered, inexpensive access to the Internet; a few universities and companies have Internet hookups, but time is limited, and students or employees do not have personal accounts.
The closest to a Western-style Internet hookup is available through ChinaNet, which is offered by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Costs, however, run $12 for six hours or $75 for 40 hours a month -- an impossible expense for urban dwellers making an average $425 a year.
About 4,200 have signed up for this English-language service, mostly joint-venture companies and foreigners, such as
journalists, who want to connect to the outside world. After a surge of demand late last year, all new applications were put on hold and plans to expand the service beyond Beijing and Shanghai have been delayed indefinitely.
Besides the cost, users of this relatively open service must be wary of China's state security, which engineers say is installing filters and starting random searches of e-mail for information that attacks the government.
Although no users have reported lost mail, authorities are believed to be gathering information in the event they want to make a case against a dissident or trouble-making foreigner.
Experts say the technology for filtering e-mail is not difficult. E-mail is stored on a disk when it comes in. This can be quickly copied and then searched, either randomly or for key words. The information can then be cataloged or deleted -- all by using high-speed computer programs.
Arresting subversive users will be possible under a new edict issued by the Ministry of Public Security this month that requires Internet users to register with the police by early March. They will have to sign a promise not to use the service to harm China.
The edict has the force of law, so a violation could be used as grounds for imprisonment or deportation.
China is also vigorously constructing a domestic information superhighway designed to satisfy the vast majority of Chinese.
The government plans to spend $29 billion hooking up most major Chinese cities with fiber-optic cables by 2000, when 60 percent of homes in major urban areas are to have telephones.
With personal computer sales up 54 percent last year and China set to surpass France this year as the sixth-largest market for PCs, authorities believe they will soon have one of the largest information networks in the world, with 180 million users within a decade.
Instead of ChinaNet, the new users will get an "Intranet," a domestic loop that will allow businesses and individuals to send e-mail to each other and browse a tamer Chinese version of the "World Wide Web."
The language on the domestic version is Chinese, although English can be used. The government propaganda bureau will run the new network.
Most young computer users in China are apolitical, saying it is futile to challenge the Communist Party's grip on authority. Instead of exploring the international Internet's world of information, they content themselves with light entertainment and science offered on the budding Chinese system.