For foreigners living in China, it has become a rule of thumb that specialized software is needed to bypass the country’s internet restrictions and gain access to outlawed content such as pornography. But for locals, it is often not possible to obtain the tools to secure their connection and scale the Great Firewall.

While it may be risky and complicated to find adult content inside China’s intranet, locals are not deterred. TechNode went in-depth in a month-long investigation into the lengths that they will go to access the forbidden fruit.

WeChat is the platform of choice for those disseminating explicit content in the country. Personal accounts and private groups that spread pornography are very much alive, if not thriving, from TechNode’s observations. This is despite constant crackdowns from operator Tencent and regulators.

The long road to find porn

With wall-scaling tools off the table and regulators designating pornography not only illegal but also corrupting, users have to go through many hoops to even make first contact with sellers. The first step is to search for porn-related keywords on China’s only major search engine Baidu. Some explicit phrasings occasionally escape Baidu’s censors, and the most effective combination appears to be “WeChat” coupled with “xiao dianying,” meaning “small movie” in English, a euphemism for pornography.

Sellers’ WeChat accounts are most commonly found via Baidu Tieba, the site’s bulletin board system (BBS) where users post topics for online discussion. They are also found on WeChat QR code sharing websites and Jianshu, an original content community platform. Due to an ongoing clean-up campaign started by the Cyberspace Administration of China in April, posts disappear quickly—one Tieba board hosting hundreds of porn-selling WeChat accounts was shut down within a week of first being spotted by TechNode.

The QR code of a porn seller. The account was flagged and has been restricted by Tencent. (Image Credit: TechNode)

QR code sharing sites are generally more resilient, but they require an even deeper understanding of the underground lingo of the business. Users have to look under tabs labeled “beauties,” “models,” “movies,” and then further filter out descriptions that contain certain words such as “fuli,” or “perks” in English, another tag used by Chinese netizens to refer to sexually explicit content.

No free trials

If users are successful in scanning a QR code before it is purged, they gain access to a limited selection of content, but not before they pay. “No free trials! For low price bonuses add me on QQ,” (our translation) one seller states. Business appears to be flourishing with a number of dealers advertising their alternative accounts due to demand being so high. WeChat accounts are capped at 2,000 contacts.

Sellers distribute content in diverse ways. The most straightforward way, TechNode found, is to post videos directly into the group using WeChat’s “note” function, which enables users to embed short videos into an empty form. Those who access them can then play the video using the app’s native player. The content is generally grainy footage shot on phone cameras.

Other sellers sent out links to pornography in the form of group chat histories. One of them updates links each day to five professionally produced movies, sometimes up to 120 minutes in length, via this method. These can also be played using the built-in video player. However, users using English as their operating language for WeChat are unable to play these links. The group had 85 members as of July 12.

Secret apps

A more covert method often employed is redirecting users to download a video app via QR codes. Several WeChat accounts that TechNode tested led users to a link for an app named “Yueguang Yingshi,” or “Moonlight Videos.” The app is not approved on iOS but circumvents restrictions by asking users to trust a certificate from a developer named “People’s Military Medical Press,” which allows it to function without going through the App Store.

Pornographic movies on “Yueguang Yingshi” number in the thousands and are frequently viewed by users. One video in the category “incest,” for instance, had more than 400,000 views and 4,221 upvotes as of July 12. The platform also links to around 200 external porn live-streaming platforms, many of which are shown to have more than 2,000 concurrent users. “Come on come on come on, strip,” an anonymous viewer commented in the chat of a show hosted by a livestreamer named “saosaoai.” “Guys can’t handle a girl like you. You will suck them dry,” another user commented a few seconds later.

Screenshot of the porn video and live-streaming app YueGuang Yingshi. (Image Credit: TechNode)

All of these services come at a cost, which is not always determined by the quality of the product, and users are vulnerable to scam attempts. The WeChat group that used notes to distribute porn, for instance, charges RMB 73 (around $11) to remain in the group. “We won’t take your money and you out,” the administrator with the handle “Xin” said. “Honesty is the most important thing.” Six hours and three kick short videos later, “Xin” kicked out TechNode’s test account, marking the tenth member to be removed that day.

One group owner offers seven different viewing plans with fees ranging from RMB 10 to RMB 128, granting access to video sites, live-streaming platforms, and premium WeChat groups where “high-resolution movies of different genres” are posted. “Yueguang Yingshi” similarly gives users the option to purchase various durations, with a permanent one costing RMB 298.

In addition to pornography, some sellers also peddle escort and other more extreme services on WeChat. One user, for instance, regularly posts screenshots from an explicit live-streaming platform on her WeChat Moments, promising premium services from them and occasionally listing the price of a “session.” Another female user sells her used bras and underwear at RMB 138 per set, which includes a pair of each.

Tencent’s reactions

Tencent has been cracking down on pornographic material on the platform for years. “Posting malicious content such as sexually explicit and lowbrow content is in severe violation of related laws and regulations, as well as WeChat’s platform standards. WeChat has zero-tolerance for behaviors like this,” a spokesperson told TechNode in a statement.

The company has banned over 38,000 official accounts for sexually explicit content and more than 115,000 official accounts for lowbrow content in 2018. Personal accounts and groups that spread such material are also penalized, though the numbers are much lower—in 2018, 810 WeChat groups and 3,500 personal accounts were punished it its dissemination.

Punishments for personal accounts include restrictions of WeChat functions like location-based services, as well as temporary suspensions, or even permanent bans, depending on the severity of the violation.

However, the number of accounts banned for pornography still only make up a tiny fraction of the app’s daily active users, which hit 1 billion as of the end of 2018. In a set of standards for external links on WeChat, Tencent stated it could punish accounts for posting links to any lowbrow content. Although the company aims to create a healthy WeChat ecosystem, the standards do not indicate that Tencent has any additional legal obligations, nor do the standards constitute any commitment to carry out the listed punishments.

Meanwhile, the platform has no automated or artificial intelligence-powered censoring system for private or group chats, the spokesperson said, adding it still relies on users to identify and report misbehavior.

Since these group chats usually charge for entry, they are not likely to be reported unless users find the content to be of inferior quality. In TechNode’s more than half month observation of three porn groups with more than 70 people, only one user voiced dissatisfaction at the quality of the movies and hinted at reporting the group if it didn’t improve. That user was quickly kicked out, at which point it becomes impossible to report the group.

Scaling the firewall

With pornography relatively hard to come by inside China, not to mention pricey, why don’t users simply use software to access the free sites from overseas?

One reason is a lack of awareness among online users. “I think one big reason that people don’t use such tools is that they don’t know what is available outside of China’s Great Firewall,” Wang Yaqiu, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told TechNode. “You don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t desire information that you don’t even know exists,”

The private use of such tools is also prohibited in the country, of course. According to state provisions, internet users may only access connections to the international internet using “the international access and exit information channel provided by the state public telecommunication net under the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication.” The Ministry of Post and Telecommunication was replaced by the Ministry of Information Industry in 1998, which was superseded again in 2008 by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Additionally, only institutions can gain access, which means that all personal use of such software is essentially illegal.

Punishments for such violations are rare, but they do happen. In December 2018, a user in Guangdong Province was fined RMB 1,000 for illegally connecting to the international internet using software called “Lantern Pro.” One month later, another user in Chongqing was summoned before authorities for similar reasons.

Another reason why WeChat is used to find porn is the sense of familiarity among local users, according to Wang, “People tend to get information from channels that they are familiar with, even if it means higher costs or lower information quality,” she said. “Humans are creatures of habit and routine.”

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail:

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