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Beijing Letter: Chinese thoughts turn to love as official spoilsports curb online gamers

Parents say new rules have had an impact on online activity, although young people often find a way around them

Along the concrete lanes between the athleisure shops and gelato bars, atonal trance music oozing out of hidden speakers, a throng of young couples walked side by side or hand in hand. Every few steps they met hawkers selling flowers and other love tokens but most of the young women already carried bouquets, furry toys or balloons twisted into the shape of an animal.

It was a fine evening, the air cooler after hours of heavy rain, and everyone in the mall, old or young, alone or in groups, seemed to be in good spirits. But the night belonged to the lovers because this was the Qixi festival, China’s equivalent of St Valentine’s Day.

The festival, which falls each year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, celebrates the annual reunion of the cowherd Niulang and Zhinu, a beautiful fairy who was also an accomplished seamstress. Zhinu’s family disapproved of her alliance with the cowherd and they took her back to heaven but the cowherd found a way to pursue her there.

When the couple got together again in a fit of rage Zhinu’s mother Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, threw her hairpin into the sky where it created the Milky Way, separating the young lovers. Touched by the couple’s love thousands of magpies formed a bridge so they could meet in the centre and Zhinu’s parents eventually agreed that they could meet once a year.


Xiwangmu’s hurled hairpin was an early expression of an older generation’s indignation at the spectacle of young people enjoying themselves and a determination to put a stop to it for their own good. It’s an impulse that remains strong all over the world, triggered by everything from who the young love and what they wear to how much time they spend online.

Nobody has yet found an answer to the first two but China believes it has worked out how to curb digital addiction, at least when it comes to online gaming. Two years ago this week new rules limited under 18s to three hours online gaming a week and the official verdict is that they have been a success.

The regulations mean that gaming platforms can only allow under 18s to play between 8pm and 9pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and they must verify the identity of each player through China’s Real ID system. This requires ID card or passport verification of name and age, linked to a specific phone number, and it is used for everything from subway tickets to theatre bookings.

A study of Chinese online gaming activity by British and Danish researchers found that the changes had little impact on the level of “heavy gaming” by users who spend a few hours a day online. But the study was unable to determine the age of the users and data from online platforms in China suggests that the curbs have reduced play by those under 18.

Tencent, the world’s biggest seller of video games, said that during the first quarter of 2023 minors accounted for only 0.4 per cent of game time, down 96 per cent from the same period three years ago. The China Music and Digital Association has seen big drops in the time young people spend online, the number of them playing every month and how much they are spending on games.

Parents say the rules have had an impact on online activity, although young people often find a way around them.

“The kids hate it because they can’t play games all the time and when the time is up the system forces the kids offline. They sometimes log in with someone else’s ID to extend the time or they use their parents’ phone to go online so the time is not limited,” one mother of a six-year-old boy told The Irish Times.

Other parents agreed that children can find a way around the rules, but said most just shifted to different online activity, watching short videos on platforms like TikTok.

“The policy is certainly working even if kids come up with a lot of ways to avoid it. But I don’t think restrictions are useful,” the mother said. “Because I’m a single mother and I have to go to work sometimes I turn a blind eye as long as my boy can get his homework done. I don’t keep him on too tight a leash. After all, the time that I can spend with him is limited.”