Julien GONG Min/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

The real reason China blocks porn

China says it blocked a billion pornographic posts in 2014. Yet it's still easy to find through the Great Firewall.

Tech

Published Jan 27, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 4:37 pm CDT

You probably haven’t heard about the Cyberspace Administration of China, but you need to. 

This small administrative office under the State Council released some amazing porn statistics recently. More than 1 billion “pornographic and harmful posts” were deleted last year within mainland China, it says, while 2,200 websites and 20 million “online forums, blogs and social media accounts” were shut down.

One billion sounds like a lot, right? It’s just a drop in the bucket.

Type “Korean couch” into the country’s top search engine, Baidu, to enter a backroom of NSFW results.

Despite man’s best efforts, porn proves as resilient as the rat or mosquito, “pests” that have withstood ill-advised Chinese crusades in the past. Even in a place with pervasive censorship, where many major Western news sites are blocked along with sites, like Twitter and YouTube, porn still thrives like a desert weed. Authorities have been “sweeping the yellow” for more than 30 years, dating back to the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1983, but smut remains readily accessible to the randy among China’s 420 million Internet users. 

For example, type “Korean couch” into the country’s top search engine, Baidu, to enter a backroom of NSFW results; you won’t find Mia Khalifa, but videos are free and most stream just fine. Even Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, is intimately familiar with porn’s ubiquity, having published screenshots of snuff porn two years ago. (Accidentally, we think.)

So, what’s with China’s virtuous war against porn? It’s almost as if it’s… not about the sex.

“At its core, this is about going after rumors—party parlance for destabilizing falsehoods—in the name of going after porn,” Chinese blogger Zhang Jialong wrote last April for Foreign Policy’s Tea Leaf Nation. “In other words, it’s about ensuring that party organs, and not the Chinese grassroots, have the loudest voice on the country’s Internet.”

The Communist Party’s bugbear is not eroticism but dissent: What’s more profane than honest objection to the government? Netting a pornographer is perfectly commendable, but the better catches are the activists, academics, and artists who use virtual space as a very real meeting place. As Tyler Roney points out in The Diplomat: “Using pornography as a baton to batter any subject the CCP finds offensive is nothing new. Ai Weiwei was hit with a pornography (and bigamy) charge in 2012, and Apple took its licks last year from the porn police. In short, pornography crackdowns are a weapon that can be used against any site that aggregates original or copied content.”

Not that the government needs an excuse to intrude, but labeling dissent as pornography can be expedient. It can, for instance, convince (“force”) computer companies to pre-install a Web-monitoring program in the name of protecting the children. The government actually tried to do this in 2009 with the Green Dam Youth Escort. The project was unceremoniously shut down because—surprise!—people hated the idea. They would have rather risked corrupting their children with the bogey of human sex than invite Big Brother onto their desktops.

China’s other strategy for regulating online behavior has been devilishly more effective: It essentially outsources censorship, forcing companies to closely track their own users. Sina, which operates China’s most popular microblog, Sina Weibo, learned last year the consequences of insufficient self-censorship: a 5.1 million yuan ($815,038) fine to go with several rounds of state-sponsored criticism. No wonder tech companies have begun hiring “pornography watchdogs” to trawl for—and delete—sensitive content.

Sadly, these aren’t new developments. They integrate seamlessly into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of a robust and ideological Communist party, one without corruption—or cleavage. Freedom of expression, within this framework, is expendable. After a stampede in Shanghai killed at least 36 on New Year’s Eve, the government moved to restrict news coverage, throttling mourners in a city that could have found unity in the tragedy. A few days earlier, China blocked Gmail, fearful of the mail service’s popularity amongst separatists and rogue elements. It followed this up with a crackdown on Microsoft Outlook. I could go on…

In the end, it’s about maintaining power. China’s campaign against porn, futile and misguided as it may seem, isn’t entirely quixotic. Sites like Pornhub are merely collateral losses in the service of a greater cause: control.

Photo by Julien GONG Min/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Jan 27, 2015, 11:52 am CST