Hong Kong – China’s crackdown on online video games was in effect Thursday. Anyone under the age of 18 in the country – over 268 million people, according to Chinese census data – is nowper week.
Children can only play on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, and only between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on these days. Access to online games now requires real name verification and login systems, and game companies can only give young players three hours of service in these small windows of time.
The reaction to the new rules has been mixed. Some parents in Beijing told CBS News they agreed their children’s time was better spent exercising or studying, while others criticized the move because the government has too much family life.
“It appears to be part of a major effort to really bring government to the forefront in all aspects of people’s lives,” Hong Kong-based online media and technology expert Paul Haswell told CBS News. .
But this policy is part of a larger push by Beijing to not only control personal habits, but also to curb the overwhelming influence that technology has suddenly claimed in, and the government’s motives go beyond just protecting children.
“Electronic drugs” and digital detox
Chinese state media had telegraphed the government’s frustration in the weeks leading up to the new policy by comparing video games to “electronic drugs” and “spiritual opium,” recalling memories of the 1800s, when millions Chinese became addicted to opium consumption during the Opium Wars with the United Kingdom.
“No industry can be allowed to destroy a generation,” wrote China’s Economic Information Daily on August 3.
More than six in 10 Chinese minors frequently play online video games, according to Chinese state media, while more than one in 10 play games on their mobile devices for more than two hours every day during the week school.
For some parents, the new play policy did not come into effect soon enough. Many had already taken drastic measures, forcing their internet addicted children to rehabilitate in digital “drug rehab” centers in China.
“I’ve been advocating for this for years,” said Tao Ran, director of the Adolescent Psychological Development Base. “The strong action of the Chinese government this time is the most successful attempt in our fight against drug addiction.”
CBS News visited the Tao facility about 20 miles from Beijing, where no technology is allowed.
Right now, about 30 boys and girls are there, having structured boot camp style days full of exercise and guidance. They share simple dormitories with other young patients and eat together. Their parents often live there as well, as part of the holistic program of reintegrating the children into their families and into society.
Tao, a former People’s Liberation Army colonel with expertise in psychology, said 85% of Chinese minors have some kind of internet addiction, which he called “the number one enemy for [personal] growth.”
His program costs around $ 1,850 per month, and most patients choose to stay between three and six months, despite having had a family for 11 months. At its busiest, the center has more than 130 patients. Boys are the majority, but Tao said he sees more and more girls registering with loved ones.
“The ratio of girls has gone from 10% to 30% over the past two years – a big leap,” he said, which he attributed to a greater variety of online games becoming available, with wider appeal.
A man at the drug rehab center told CBS News he has been there with his son every day for about a month since the 17-year-old was suspended from school for three months.
“He spent eight to nine hours a day online. Sometimes he was online all day and night, 24 hours a day. It’s not just his problem. Our family didn’t create enough money. love, so he had to look for a replacement in the games, “said the father, who did not want to be identified. “At first he didn’t recognize that he had a problem. After a few weeks he started to come to terms with the fact that he was having problems. He had a chance to reflect. My child is very sociable and he is considering to escape with other trainees when he first entered, but they didn’t do anything. “
A high school student who had already been at the facility for five months, with both parents joining him last month, told CBS News he was also suspended from school after falling with a group of friends “who could be considered bad influences.”
“We spent whole nights in internet cafes, sometimes we drink alcohol, sometimes I don’t come home for three or four days. I spent more than 10 hours a day online. At worst, I fell asleep. every two days, “he added. boy says. “Here I have something to do. I get up at 5:50 am and do morning exercises and jogging. After lunch we have group therapy and lectures. I think it is difficult for the trainees to recognize improvements… it’s gradual. Every time you take a small step, you won’t realize how far you’ve climbed until you are already on top of the mountain. When you get back to real life , people around you might see you in a different way. “
But while the new rules may help keep more children out of centers like Tao’s, that’s not good news for the companies behind the games.
What else is there behind?
“I think this is really bad news for some of the local tech companies,” Haswell told CBS News of the new gaming limits. “I think Tencent is going to have the most trouble.”
Tencent is the creator of the hugely popular “Honor of Kings”, the world’s highest grossing video game for much of this year. On August 3, the same day the reviews were published by Chinese state media, Tencent’s stock fell 10%, losing $ 60 billion in market capitalization. Its stocks have managed to rebound since then.
“I think it’s an attempt to try to bring more equality,” said Haswell, technology partner at Pinsent Masons. “At the same time, maybe it’s a bit heavy, maybe the crackdown is now punishing those who are successful.”
The new limits of online games are part of a wider crackdown that goes far beyond video games, and the motivation is likely to extend far beyond just protecting children. This year, Beijing hasin the tech industry, including Alibaba, often referred to as the Amazon of China, and Didi, known to many as the Uber of China, allegedly over personal data concerns.
Authorities have also changed the rules of popular online tutoring companies, long accused of giving people who can afford such services a competitive advantage over less wealthy families who cannot. They can no longer bill for their basic academic services.
Some of the biggest Chinese celebrities have also seen their online profiles erased from the Chinese internet in recent months, for reasons that have not been clearly explained.
Haswell says the global crackdown on the digital space likely stems from a combination of factors, including the amount of data stored by big tech companies, the influence individuals have on Chinese society, and concerns about who are gaining new communication spaces that are more difficult to monitor.
“Remember that online gaming is by its very nature social. And that’s another social space that should be regulated. Think about the extent of internet censorship in China,” Haswell said. . “Game-related online chat rooms can be more difficult to moderate.”
With this latest set of new rules, Beijing has made it clear that protecting – many would say the police – the country’s next generations is more important than any corporate interest. It is also a clear message to these next generations, and to the biggest companies in China, that there is no power greater than the ruling Communist Party.