Beijing’s Play for Porn

July 26, 2013 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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SHANGHAI — When it comes to pornography, the Chinese government is guilty of naked hypocrisy.

This month Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, announced yet another anti-pornography crusade. The campaign, scheduled to last through August, aims to create a “benign Internet environment” for Chinese youth during the summer holidays. Web sites and online games, advertisements and forums that show “pornographic content” have been shut down, fined, asked to remove offending content or are being investigated. Just exactly what constitutes porn, however, is not spelled out.

This crackdown is part of an ongoing, if erratic, battle against smut. The Chinese Communist Party has long viewed itself as a guardian against “spiritual pollution,” which runs the gamut from porn to wayward politics. Pornography has been banned in China since 1949, when the Communists came to power.

China’s anti-porn laws are both nebulous and draconian. Anything that violates “public morality” or harms “the physical and mental health of youth and young people” can be targeted. Distributing porn was a capital offense under Deng Xiaoping. In 2005, the mastermind behind the country’s largest porn Web site was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The law is also self-serving; the state’s sanctimony stops short at its own publications. Recent Xinhua headlines include “Hot-and-Heavy Moments: Look How Hot Irina Shayk in Bikini,” “Unbelievably Flexible Women,” “Top 10 Bikini Babies of Sports Illustrated” (“Babies” in the original text) and “Top 10 Sexy Nudist Bathing Spots Around the World.” Each online slideshow features girls wearing next to nothing or, in the last case, nothing at all.

This is “Confucian confusion,” said Katrien Jacobs, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of “People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet.” Jacobs told me this week that traditional rules regarding the dissemination of sexual content are often broken by the Chinese authorities themselves. In the last three decades of market reform, the government has increasingly pitted “the use of highly sexualized imagery for commercial reasons” against “severe moralism.”

The double-standard hasn’t gone unnoticed. One user on the microblog Sina Weibo wrote on July 8: “On the one hand the government spares no effort to crackdown on pornography. But on the other hand, the media always uses fresh women to attract more eyeballs. It seems that the government cultivates the hotbed of pornography while at the same time cracking down on it.” Some foreigners here have taken to calling Xinhua “Skinhua.”

The competition, meanwhile, is exposed to sanctions. Earlier this month the authorities closed a daily newspaper in Shandong Province for three months for displaying “vulgar” content. The Blue Express Daily was denounced for publishing semi-nude photographs of women. But the paper’s deputy editor, Qu Quancheng, stated on Weibo that these were “made-up accusations.” According to The South China Morning Post, the paper blamed competitors for tipping off the censors.

Cracking down on porn is a ready excuse to clamp down on companies viewed as commercial threats. In 2009 China Central Television accused Google of spreading pornography. (Just one year later, after other attacks designed to undermine it, Google moved its headquarters to Hong Kong.) In April, People’s Daily announced that Apple was being investigated for providing pornography on its apps.

Calling out X-rated content is also, of course, a way to implement sweeping censorship. In May, the authorities announced they had “seized” 180,000 online publications publicizing porn in a two-month clean up. More than 10,000 Web sites were sanctioned, and 5.6 million illegal publications “unearthed,” according to state media. Alongside the porn, out goes the political.

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