Upon returning from a trip to the mountains on Wednesday afternoon, Li Hui logged on to QQ, the country's most popular chat program. A routine run-through of his online contacts made the Party chief anxious - Liu Jianrong, Sandu village's first and only web administrator, was offline.
Li rushed to the villagers' free Net caf, only to find it had been struck by a brief power outage. Liu was there, along with a group of peasants patiently waiting to get online.
Even in this third-smallest village in Wuyishan, a county-level city in the eastern part of Fujian, an Internet culture is taking shape, in large part due to Digital Wuyi, a local project aimed at creating an information-based society.
Initiated by the Wuyishan government with an investment of 12 million yuan (US$1.5 million) and another 3 million yuan from joint sponsors SZWY, Smartdot, Intel and Microsoft, the project's first phase kicked off in April in 22 of Wuyishan's 115 administrative villages.
Sandu, a village of 514 people who live on oranges and tangerines from the nearby mountains, and corn and taro from their fields, is one of them.
The program's launch coincided and merged with the Peasant Online Library Project set up by Wuyishan's culture and sports bureau. The bureau donated several Lenovo Celeron D computers to villages in the area, while Digital Wuyi commissioned another five to 10 Dell Celeron Ds, a 29-inch TCL television set and a touch kiosk built by Beijing Riyao to each of the 22 villages.
Sandu's Net caf is open from 9-11:30 AM and 2-5:30 PM every day except Sunday and is free for villagers aged 10 and older. Net cafs in some other villages are open only in the afternoon during the farming season.
The centers were not built just so people could surf the Net. Rather, villagers are encouraged to - and often do - use the facilities to communicate with their fellow peasants across the country about farming techniques, video chat with family working elsewhere, read books, watch films and listen to music from the online archives of the national and provincial libraries, through 2,000 free accounts.
Interested villagers can take part in free computer training classes twice a year, or ask for guidance from their local supervisors, Li said.
The county's 22 administrators, which include Liu in Sandu and Jiang Yuehong in nearby Xingtian village, were trained for a month in March. The administrators are required to report when they start and finish work to both the Digital Wuyi management system and their QQ group. In addition, a video camera is installed atop every administrator's computer, allowing the authorities to keep track of their work.
The administrators, most of them middle-aged women who are computer rookies, face a big new task: They were recently asked to establish websites for their villages on Taobao, China's answer to eBay, to promote local farm products.
But, as Jiang put it: "It's a new job in a new area, where life can grow a little tedious at times. People enjoy coming to the center, and I like this job. It's less demanding than farm work once you get the hang of it."
(China Daily November 13, 2007)