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Tech Thursday: Purging Porn

Are the government’s new anti-porn campaigns going to kill the Chinese internet?

11·22·2018

Tech Thursday: Purging Porn

Are the government’s new anti-porn campaigns going to kill the Chinese internet?

11·22·2018

Pornography is once again going viral in the PRC—not the real stuff, which is illegal—but a debate over how the state continues to treat a medium that is both legal elsewhere, and “ubiquitous” in China.

Last week, the Beijing News reported how successful author Ms Liu, whose pen name is Tianyi, was given a 10-year prison sentence for selling a book which featured graphic homosexual sex scenes. Meanwhile, the government was announcing rewards of up to 600,000 RMB for reporting pornographic content.

Homosexuality is still taboo for many Chinese, but is gaining more acceptance, as shown in this Hong Kong parade (AP)

The length of Tianyi’s sentence came in for immediate criticism, with legal experts, social scientists, and members of the public noting that much severe crimes came with shorter time. One Yunnanese official, for example, was sentenced to five years in prison for the rape of a 4-year-old girl (later lengthened to 8 years, after public outcry), while a Beijing man received just six and a half years for beating his wife to death in 2009.

Tianyi’s story of an affair between a professor and one of his students was downloaded over 7,000 times, breaking a 1998 law stating that “selling more than 5,000 copies of pornographic books [justifies] imprisonment for not less than 10 years.”

Many noted that Tianyi’s sentence was the result of a legal system which has not adapted quickly enough to modern technology. “It might have been difficult to sell 5,000 copies in 1998—there was no internet back then. But now it is almost effortless,” one commenter noted on Weibo.

Last weekend, though, the Office of the National Work Group for “Combating Pornography and Illegal Publications” announced it will be offering new rewards for anyone who reports pornography, starting December 1. Individuals will be compensated two percent (or minimum 1,000 RMB) of the total business revenue of any publication they turn in, or up to 600,000 RMB.

Additionally, rewards will be offered for online information that “engender the physical and mental health of minors and social morality,” capped at 50,000 RMB. The goal is to mobilize ordinary citizens to clean up China’s cyberspace.

This carrot-and-stick approach highlights the new methods the government is using to cleanse the Chinese internet. Over the last month, nearly 10,000 accounts have gone missing on Weibo, Wechat, Netease, and Baidu, with several belonging to high-profile individuals, including notorious toady Eric Li. Last week, the South China Morning Post published a story on the missing accounts with the apocalyptical title “Winter has come.”

Most of the government’s previous efforts, though, have focused on getting tech to clean up its own content, rather than targeting individuals themselves. On October 28, Chinese officials met with the parent company of the ubiquitous social messaging app WeChat and announced that “Tencent has to immediately conduct self-examination and self-correction” upon Wechat’s over 1 billion users. By the following day, Tencent had already made substantial progress, shutting down over 1,700 accounts.

Meanwhile, AI-generated news app Jinri Toutiao also elicited ire from authorities, due to its algorithm throwing out click-bait to erotic literature, rather than legitimate news. In early October, Beijing authorities announced that Toutiao’s “real life” story section will be closed down for one month to clean up content such as “After a night of debauchery, the man turned out to be her new boss.”

However effective the campaign is, the monetary incentives are likely to fall on ready ears. Last year, Weibo “hired 1,000 supervisors” to report unwelcome content.The pay? A miserly 200 RMB subsidy each month, with the promise of electronics and gifts for high performance.