Argument

No Porn for Chinese Stuck Under Virus Lockdown

Internet controls have proved even more restrictive as Chinese life moves online under quarantine.

A group of 11 defendants charged with spreading pornography in China in 2005.
A group of 11 defendants charged with spreading pornography, in the biggest internet porn case in China, involving about 300,000 paid subscribers, stand before the court in Hefei on May 11, 2005. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Tens of millions of Chinese citizens remain quarantined to their homes, moving much of their daily lives online. Yet teachers who have moved their classrooms to the virtual sphere find themselves navigating another state-imposed minefield: China’s heavily censored internet.

In February, a lecturer of nursing science complained on social media that her online session was hastily shut down when artificially intelligent censors flagged the livestream as “internet pornography.” As the dust-up went viral on Chinese social media, the lecturer explained that she had been doing a class on human birth. A biology teacher from Wenzhou shared similar problems, this time during a livestreamed course on meiosis, the division of sex cells.

These tales reflect a long-standing crackdown. In a country known for its widespread censorship of the Internet, the government’s stated goal of stamping out pornography—an industry known for ushering in Internet innovations, from affiliate links to virtual reality—has been especially intense. State media has repeatedly referred to porn as a malignant “tumor,” on par with online fraud and gambling: an illness that contaminates the web, Chinese culture, and the rule of law, jeopardizing the well being of the country’s youth.

Certainly, some of the government’s concern about porn is well intended. China’s black-market porn industry potentially makes it easier for child sexual exploitation to proliferate, and sex work in China is often controlled by organized crime. The inadequacy of sex education in China has made porn the only source of information for millions of young people. At the same time, the government’s censorship can be a blunt-force object than surgical scalpel. When Titanic was rescreened in Chinese cinemas in 2012, for instance, fans were surprised to no longer see the famous scene of Rose lying naked before Jack. A regulatory agency ruled that the scene had to go, given viewers may, as the agency stated publicly, “reach out their hands for a touch.” The emphasis on prudish relationship norms dates back to the Maoist period, during which cultural icons were portrayed as living without sex and marriage.

But puritanism alone is not the purpose of such bans. By placing porn at the center of debates about the Internet, the Chinese government lends a moral narrative to its censorship of the free web. From clamping down on websites to cloud storage to livestreaming, the fight against pornography has long given the Chinese government a scapegoat to rein in the Internet at large.

Using artificial intelligence, Chinese Internet censors today are superb at detecting sexual images. Tech companies such as Alibaba and Tuputech developed algorithms to trawl various online platforms, for pornographic audio, photos, and videos with remarkable accuracy. The search engine Baidu reported removing more than 53 billion pieces of “harmful information” using artificial intelligence in 2019, almost half of which were pornographic. The public security bureau squelched more than 43,000 pornographic websites last year alone.

This level of accuracy was not achieved overnight. When adult entertainment shifted online in the 2000s, pornographic websites ballooned, even if it was difficult for many Chinese to find an opportunity to watch, given most Chinese were accessing the web in Internet cafes. Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at University of California, Berkeley, said in 2006, “Outside of politics, China is as free as anywhere. You can find porn just about anywhere on the Internet.” At the time, human censors working for the government and Internet companies paid more attention to searches for “Tiananmen Square protests” and “Falun Gong” than to porn; crackdowns were sporadic and ineffective, and banned websites soon popped up again under a different domain name.

In fact, mainland China became one of the world’s largest consumer markets for online porn. Porn sites such as Caoliu and Erotica Juneday garnered more than half a million paid members and chalked up hundreds of millions of visits—at a time when only 9 percent of China’s population was using the Internet. In nationwide surveys spanning from 2000 to 2015, more than 70 percent of men aged 18 to 29 said they had watched porn in the past year.

The prevalence of porn sites in the early 2000s represented loopholes in China’s censored web. The state council passed a series of laws in 2000 which required Internet service providers to register their IP addresses and domain names, but not everyone complied. Porn sites simply diverted to foreign servers and regularly changed their domain names and IP addresses to dodge detection.

As the decade went on, the government set out to fix these loopholes and intensified its purge against porn. In 2006, the police successfully squelched Erotica Juneday, the largest porn site at the time. A court sentenced its owner to life in prison. This effort was systematized when “Clean the Internet” campaign was rolled out in 2012 by the national agency responsible for censoring illegal publications, which has tracked down thousands of porn sites with irregular domain names and IP addresses every year.

Purges of porn have also been wielded as a tool to reign in foreign companies in China. A year prior to Google’s coerced exit in 2010, the Chinese government accused Google of spreading porn and demanded it to censor its search results. Google gave in to Beijing’s request and the row ended with Beijing recognizing Google’s “positive attitude” to eliminate porn. Meanwhile, Beijing turned a blind eye to lurid content flooding Baidu, a domestic search engine that became a picked national champion.

U.S. analysts also claimed that the dirt on Google was potentially intended to divert Chinese public’s anger away from a controversial new mandate, which required every personal computer to use a censorship software called Green Dam. The program was hailed as a filter to protect teens from porn, but as computer scientists at the University of Michigan have found, it blocked both obscenities and political sensitivities. Green Dam ended up a failed project—not least because it had major security vulnerabilities and large portions of its code were plagiarized from a Western source—but the goal remained to weed out politically undesirable content from the web.

As Rebecca MacKinnon, now director of the U.S.-based nonprofit Ranking Digital Rights, put it, “The same mechanisms used to censor porn are used to censor anything else people want to censor.”

The most intense censorship campaign, called “sweep porn and attack rumors,” came under President Xi Jinping’s government in 2014. The new attack not only promised to arrest website operators, it also banned the use of television satellite equipment that allowed access to foreign broadcasts, confiscated hundreds of thousands of illegal publications in print, and prosecuted what officials called “fake journalists” along the way.

The nimble porn industry is often the first to sneak onto new forms of media, and the anti-porn dragnet has extended to whichever emerging online channel the industry uses. Officials argued that porn transferred on the cloud storage platforms becoming popular in the early 2010s was “tainting young people’s minds,” and in 2016, five state agencies jointly announced a crackdown on online drives. This led to a drastic decrease in service providers and forced the remaining ones to fortify censorship of data shared among users.

By mid-2016, the number of active livestreaming users in China had grown to 314 million—nearly equivalent to the population of the United States. Millions of young “cam girls” (and a number of “cam boys”) rushed into streaming for quick profits. Women who marketed themselves with the fewest boundaries were showered with the most clicks and cashable virtual gifts, until they finally crossed the line: In 2017, a video of a woman performing sex acts with live swamp eels at the request of her “bosses”—as the VIP viewers were called—leaked out and sent shock waves across China (the video was speedily deleted and the performer sentenced to a year and nine months in prison).

As state media lamented the overabundance of porn on livestreaming sites, a fusillade of crackdowns ensued, strengthening licensing requirements and demanding streamers to provide their platform an official form of identification. The new laws also demanded that platforms set up an editorial office responsible for auditing every publication related to news. Yet again porn became an excuse for further crackdowns.

The Chinese government has long expressed its politics through public stances on sex: the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s rendered sex as distracting the proletariat from the Marxist cause. The state urged contraception and even the sale of sex toys while implementing the one-child policy in the 80s. Similarly, its campaigns against pornography have more in mind than just regulating people’s sexual life. Yet today, the Chinese government—armed with cutting-edge technologies—has the muscle to monitor and intrude on people’s private encounters in ways that no previous government could, and it has shown no hesitation in doing so.

Celine Sui is a United States-based independent scholar and freelance journalist focused on Sino-African relations.

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