The 24 young people who perished on Sunday in a fire at a Beijing Internet cafe were victims of an appalling disregard for safety associated with a booming underground industry, witnesses and analysts said.
They said the Government's tightening hold over the Internet had driven many outlets underground and into residential areas.
Located on the second floor of an old building in Haidian district, the Lanjisu Internet cafe, like many such illegal centres, had barred windows. Witnesses claimed the door was also locked, trapping the victims.
Internet cafes, which have sprouted across the capital in recent years, have become social hot-spots, particularly for teenagers and university students keen to play computer games and use chat rooms.
With outlets charging about three yuan (HK$2.80) an hour, users often stay for hours well into the night.
The facilities at many Internet cafes are minimal, with no safety equipment such as fire extinguishers even though smoking is allowed. At one of the cafes in the Haidian district yesterday, more than half of its 50 users were seen smoking.
Many outlets are crammed with computers from wall to wall, leaving a small path to the door. The centres are often in dilapidated buildings, usually on the upper floors or in the basement with no windows, leaving only one route of escape.
China relentlessly regulates Internet cafes and has shut tens of thousands since they began mushrooming in big cities five years ago.
But with millions of people seeking Internet access, many centres operate without licences, behind locked doors and barred windows to avoid police detection, ignoring safety standards.
Wang Yuesheng, owner of a licensed Internet cafe, said the strict regulatory requirements for businesses like his usually forced many operators to flout the law.
Nationwide, an average of 30 per cent of Internet cafes are unlicensed, state media estimate. In some areas, the number jumps to 50 per cent.
'The Government doesn't support Web cafes,' adds Mr Wang, who runs the no-frills Feiyu chain.
Beijing requires Internet cafe operators to obtain approval from the ministries of culture, public security, information, industry and commerce.
Police often raid cafes to search hard disks for evidence that customers are using the Internet for sensitive political activities, such as accessing banned Web sites, industry figures say.
Despite the wall of bureaucracy, many owners simply open businesses wherever they can and try to stay clear of authorities. Front doors to their cramped premises are locked to anyone but genuine Web surfers.
To avoid suspicion, owners keep their shop signs vague, using titles such as Network Company - the very same label that the doomed Lanjisu centre had used.