Down a garbage-strewn back alley in the grimy Hunan town of Xiangyin, the Internet cafe is crammed. In the stifling basement room, three dozen twentysomethings are transfixed by their computer screens. I fork over one yuan (about 15 cents) to check my e-mail and the global headlines.

Xiangyin is a provincial backwater. But it has 60 or 70 Internet cafés, some legal, some not. The central government has declared that the information economy is crucial for China’s prosperity, so it has encouraged the spread of broadband to the more remote towns and villages. Today, hundreds of millions of people have easy access to the Net, even in places where average household incomes are less than $1,000 a year and nobody can afford a computer.

In the gloom, a red-shirted kid is chatting on-line with a pal. “What are you talking about?” I ask. “Falun Gong,” he says nonchalantly.

So much for censorship. Falun Gong is a banned spiritual sect, and public discussion of it is forbidden. But even the state can’t regulate private Internet chat.

The kid, who’s unemployed, says he comes to the Internet café every day. Chat, movies and video games are cheap, less than 30 cents an hour. He says all his friends come here, too.

“These small cities used to be isolated,” says Guo Liang, one of China’s foremost authorities on the social impact of the Net. “But now people have a window on the world.” In a study he conducted for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Mr. Guo found that the Net is transforming daily life among young adults in places such as Xiangyin. They mostly use the Net for entertainment and chat. But they also use it for news.

“I love to read the negative news reports on-line, especially the common people’s complaints,” one focus-group participant said. “Those brave reports could never be released by the traditional media; only on the Internet is it possible to read them.”

A woman Net user said: “All Netizens can participate in the discussions. I love to hear so many different voices on the Internet.”

These two Net enthusiasts live in Yima City, a mining town deep in China’s interior, where the average income is $700 a year. Few people there have college degrees. But they’re hungry to connect, and more than a quarter of the population is now on the Net.

More here.