Comparing enforcement practices and efforts in mainland China and Hong Kong
Mainland China and Hong Kong have not only devised separate regulatory regimes in their tackling of online pornography but also differ in their enforcement measures. In the following sections, I describe and analyse the actual practices of the two jurisdictions and evaluate their effectiveness.
For many years predating the Internet era, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP, previously known as State Administration of Press and Publication) conducted annual campaigns to combat illegal and pornographic publications. This government department monitors the print media in mainland China and most of these campaigns lasted for one month, with only a few of longer duration. During these campaigns, the police and other relevant government departments carry out waves of mass operations on the targeted activities, resulting in a huge number of arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and the handing down of harsh sentences by the courts. The fight against online pornography follows a similar pattern (BBC, 2009a). Indeed, these law enforcement campaigns stand out in mainland China’s online pornography regulation in stark contrast to practices in Hong Kong.
The campaigns against online pornography since early 2009, however, appear to be of much longer duration and greater magnitude. Nine to eleven government departments participated in these campaigns at different stages, including the GAPP; the State Council’s Information Office, which is responsible for Internet regulation; the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which regulates telecommunications operators and ISPs; the Ministry of Culture; the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television; and the Ministry of Public Security. These government departments have stressed that the sole purpose of the campaigns is to provide a clean and healthy environment for minors (Xinhua 2009).
The officials in charge announced a long list of objectives for the recent campaigns: shutting down websites, microblogs, social media, and instant messaging groups that spread obscene, pornographic, or vulgar content; investigating major criminal cases of spreading online obscene and pornographic content; arresting and punishing the criminals involved; identifying and punishing enterprises that provide billing or advertising services to obscene, pornographic, or vulgar websites; closing down illegal ISPs; stepping up measures concerning website registration and approval; ensuring that Internet access providers, ISPs, and domain name registration bodies comply with information security duties; and improving long-term mechanisms for the prevention and investigation of obscene, pornographic, or vulgar content (SIIO 2012).
It is difficult to obtain an accurate picture of the outcomes of these campaigns. The Chinese authorities release only selected figures on an irregular basis. It was boasted, for example, that huge achievements had been made in a six-month campaign launched between March and September 2012, including the deletion of 3.7 million online postings, the closure of some 8,000 illegal websites, webpages and online video channels, and of some 97,000 blog or microblog accounts, and the arrest of some 2,800 criminals and a crackdown on 41 gangs (SIIO 2012).
The Chinese authorities have also from time to time publicised cases of harsh sentences handed down on offenders convicted of disseminating online pornography. In May 2010, for example, an offender was given a jail term of 11 years and six months and a fine of 750,000 yuan for disseminating online obscene and pornographic content with a view to profit. The court heard that the offender, together with 11 staff members, had constructed 13 websites in 2007—8 using 14 servers based in the United States. Obscene photos, videos, and writings were uploaded. Subscription fees totalling 710,000 yuan were collected from VIP members who had registered with these websites (GAPP 2010).
Since early 2011, the Chinese authorities have apparently also targeted non-profit dissemination of online pornography. Among the arrests was a young mother who wrote some 200 online pornographic novels during her spare time over a period of five years (Hainan Daily 2011). In May 2012, mainland Chinese police cracked down on MM House, a large-scale Chinese language pornographic online forum with servers based in the United States. During the operation, the police made arrests in more than 30 locations throughout China, detaining more than 2,100 people (Li 2012). Several hundred of the detained were later prosecuted. The press reported that many of the accused were university students or white-collar workers who had uploaded pornographic photos or videos onto the forum in their spare time or had volunteered to manage webpages in exchange for exemption from subscription fees and free access to the forum (China News Service 2012).
It is noteworthy that these recent campaigns have targeted not only obscene or pornographic online content but also ‘vulgar’ and ‘undesirable’ content. Although highlighted by government officials during the campaigns, the latter two categories cannot be found in legislation and are indeed not legally defined terms. The MIIT issued a directive in May 2009 requiring that every computer sold in the PRC starting from July 2009 should have pre-installed filtering software known as ‘Green Dam – Youth Escort’ (Southern Metropolis Daily 2009). The stated aim was to provide a healthy environment for teenagers and to protect them from undesirable online content, and in particular to reinforce campaigns against online pornography. Officials did not explain exactly what ‘undesirable online content’ included. Chinese Internet users worried that the filtering software would spy on their online activities. Due to severe opposition both inside and outside China, the ‘Green Dam’ project was soon aborted (BBC 2009b).
On the other hand, what constitutes vulgar content was detailed, by an official in charge of campaigns curbing online pornography, as information that promotes bloodshed, violence, or murder, or that consists of malicious verbal abuse or insulting or defamatory remarks. It also covers information that seduces adolescents and interferes with their studies, including showing private body parts or sexual conduct whether explicitly or implicitly; pictures, audiovisuals, cartoons, or writings with sexual appeal or portraying sexual abuse; illegal advertisements about sex tools or venereal disease treatment; or information on the sex trade or casual sex. Vulgar content also includes intrusion into others’ privacy, such as up-skirt filming and pictures that expose private body parts, and the use of the Internet to maliciously publicise private information of other individuals. It also refers to information that is against traditional marital and family values, including extra-marital affairs, one-night stands and partner swapping (SCIO 2009).
In sum, the term ‘vulgar content’ carries a very wide meaning with an emphasis on sex and violence that is supposedly harmful to minors. Vulgar content in mainland China corresponds largely to the category indecent content in Hong Kong. Online indecent content is permitted in Hong Kong so long as there are devices in place to prevent access by minors. This is not the case in mainland China, which has no classification scheme, and where vulgar online content is not allowed. This implies that all websites that are accessible in mainland China and controlled by the authorities there should be suitable for both adults and minors. However, the actual situation is obviously different.
Despite the steps taken outlined above, the Chinese authorities admitted in late 2012 that they still faced two major problems in combating online pornography. First, there is widespread use of mobile phones and other smart mobile devices to disseminate obscene or pornographic content. Second, obscene or pornographic websites accessible in China have servers based in overseas countries (SIIO 2012). Indeed, the huge popularity of some Japanese adult video actresses (See Wong and Lau, this volume), notably Sola Aoi, among many male Chinese Internet users in recent years reflects ready access and frequent visits by these Internet users to Chinese language obscene websites based overseas (Jacobs 2012: 38).
The Chinese authorities declared in late 2010 that the fight against online pornography would be a long-term task, and periodic campaigns were being transformed into a regular and continuous pursuit (Southcn. com 2010). Nevertheless, the Chinese authorities launched further campaigns in 2012 and early 2013 to combat online pornography, stating that the situation was worsening (China Daily 2013). The stated aim of all these campaigns was to provide a clean and safe online environment for minors.
There are serious doubts about the real motives behind the PRC’s various anti-pornography campaigns. It is commonly believed among many people in mainland China that the authorities have for years used the pretext of banning pornography to wipe out any unauthorised or illegal print media. The same tactics have apparently been used for controlling online content. Critics noted that Bullog, a blog-hosting website, was among the early casualties of recent campaigns against online pornography and tightened Internet control. Bullog was popular among intellectuals and had posted discussions on the ‘08 Charter’, a petition sent by intellectuals and activists to the Chinese government in 2008 calling for improvements and reforms in the right to freedom of expression, elections, and the rule of law. The website was shut down for failing to remove a large amount of harmful information relating to current affairs and politics (Ming
Pao 2009). In addition, many small to medium-sized websites operating without official blessing have been shut down in recent campaigns (LaFraniere 2009). It is widely acknowledged that the campaigns serve as a convenient excuse for tightening Internet control, sending small ICPs into a cold winter (Lin and Wu 2010).