In China, the internet cafe has overtaken the workplace as the second most popular place after their own homes for internet users to go online, according to data released in June, 2007, by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), in their latest biannual survey.

Most of the increase in internet café use is in rural areas, where people are unlikely to be able to afford the costs of their own computers or internet access, but can often pay the 2 or 3 yuan, about 26 – 39 cents, per hour to mostly play online games.

The government put a lid on opening new cafes earlier in 2007, which may have been effective in limiting the growth of official cafes, where owners are required to register who is using the internet and which sites they’re visiting. But it is hard for authorities to monitor unofficial internet cafes, or wang ba, (literally, “net bar”) which are reportedly popping up in private houses or rooms.

I sought out my first rural internet bar last week, in the village of Wolong (Crouching Dragon), high in the mountains of Sichuan, far enough west to be China’s geographical equivalent of Kansas to the US but very mountainous. Wolong is known for the Wolong Panda Reserve, our destination, reachable by a 2 ½ hour flight west from Shanghai, followed by a 3 ½ hour drive, the last half of which is on a spectacularly rough mountain road that has been under construction for about 2 years, and looks like it has a good few more years to go before the ride becomes pleasant or easy.

The pandas were indescribably adorable, especially the dozen or so one-year-olds, which I got to pet and frolic with a little bit! The internet cafe was pretty amazing as well. It was tucked at the end of a row of shops facing a construction site behind the main road through town. We trudged there by negotiating muddy puddles and clambering over stacks of rebar until we reached an open double door with a drooping, homemade sign announcing the internet.

The space was a dark, dank, odiferous garage-like room, probably about 12 feet by 20 feet, with about 10 computers set up in two rows facing the outer, moldy walls. Old computers were set on simple tables, and each spot had a plastic chair.

Four young guys were using computers. One was doing email; two were playing games; the last was multi-tasking with a game, a video, and email. It was definitely not the kind of place you’d want to hang out and surf the web. Or at least I wouldn’t.

Visiting my first rural internet café was a reality check for me. Even though the number of rural internet café internet users is rising, it is hard to imagine it will extend to the one billion (or so) peasants throughout China. While the much-discussed obstacles to bringing the internet to rural China are affordability and accessibility, a much less-discussed obstacle is what loomed largest to me after this visit. I heard an academic address this obstacle – incentive to use the internet — at an internet conference. He reported the words of one rural peasant, on the value of the internet to him. “The internet is about as useful to me as an aircraft carrier,” said the peasant. After spending just a few days in rural, remote China, where the people I saw were struggling to build a road, sell modest bowls of noodles, dry their clothes outdoors in the misty climate (you get the picture), I would agree with him.