Let’s face it: Pornography is becoming mainstream.

Around the world, adult content is available in almost any medium you can imagine (and perhaps some you couldn’t 😉). However, some countries—like China and many others—have gone to great lengths to ensure that the production, distribution, and/or consumption of erotic media is difficult if not impossible.

But, as the old saying goes: Where there is a will, there is a way.

When Tony Xu first proposed looking into pornography on WeChat for this great article, I was skeptical. With all the reports of how WeChat facilitates China’s control of information, surely porn would be an easy target for the platform’s automated control systems. Well, apparently I was wrong. People in China are watching porn just like everyone else.

Bottom line: The will for sexual content in China is not only there, but it’s growing. Not only do more young Chinese people report that they consume pornography, the consumption channels are also increasing. Like many civilizations, China has a long and complicated relationship with sexuality and its display. In modern times, China’s leaders have tried their best to control its expression. Ostensibly illegal behind the Great Firewall, it is surprisingly easy to find if you know where to look. In the Soviet Union, samizdat literature was distributed on carbon paper and pirate copies of Beatles records on chest X-rays. In China, links to porn float around in notionally private group chats. That doesn’t mean, however, that “vulgar” content is tolerated publicly. Quite the opposite: China’s enforcement bodies increasingly use titillating content as an excuse to force content platforms to offer more politically correct material.

A brief history

  • During the Han (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), Tang (618–906), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, erotic literature and depictions of sexual acts flourished.
  • Under the Qing (1644–1911), state ideology connected chastity with stability and asserted that “the obscene and erotic in literature lead to promiscuity in real life.”
  • Under Mao Zedong, sexual activity came under the authority of the state. Labeled as “bourgeois predilections,” pornography, prostitution, extramarital and pre-marital sex, as well as recreational sex, were all banned.
  • Under Deng Xiaoping, pornography and obscene behavior were labeled “spiritual pollution,” together with individualism, existentialism, and bourgeois liberalism under the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign.”
  • In 1997, the Chinese government included the production and dissemination of obscene material in the country’s criminal law.
  • In 2002, the Ministry of Information Industry ordered service providers to screen e-mail for and delete from public sites” sensitive materials” including state secrets, slander against China’s reputation, incitement to overthrow the Communist Party, ethnic separatism, evil cults, pornography, and violence.
  • In 2004, Wang Yanli was jailed for four years for putting on “lewd” webcam shows. She was the first person to see jail time after strict anti-internet porn regulations came into effect.

A golden age long gone: Wind back the clock seven to eight years and you’ll arrive at one of the golden ages of adult content in China—internet connections were becoming better, forums were springing up, downloaders and storage platforms enjoyed lax oversight, and regulators were still figuring out where most sexual content came from.

One of the most useful and possibly most widely used porn-watching tool was the now-defunct peer-to-peer (P2P) video player and downloader Kuaibo. The platform allowed users to view pirated videos—often pornography— and was widely referred to as a kanpian shenqi, or “divine artifact for porn-viewing.” Kuaibo’s glory days didn’t last long. On April 22, 2014, company headquarters were raided by police, and on September 13, 2016, Kuaibo’s CEO was sentenced to 42 months in prison.

Starting around 2012, P2P downloader Xunlei and Baidu Wangpan (Baidu’s cloud service) also emerged as porn repositories. As long as users could find torrents or magnet links to pornography, often hidden in images using compression tools—a technique referred to as tuzhong, or “image torrent”—they could locate copies of porn that were already in the cloud and download them at max bandwidth. It wasn’t long before these cloud storage spaces came under scrutiny, with torrents and magnet links routinely getting flagged or reported for vulgar content. This cleanup gradually escalated, resulting in an almost “barren” cloud storage environment, save for password-protected Baidu cloud links.

As free pornography sources within the Great Firewall died down, paid source began to emerge. Paying for porn used to be just another option, but now people have no choice.

—section by Tony Xu

Sex in society: After restrictive and prudish policies against all manner of sexual activity, China’s sexuality is changing:

  • Sex toy shops and prostitution (in the form of barber shops and massage parlors) have become common.
  • A 2015 study showed that 30% of respondents aged 18-61 had viewed pornographic material in the past year.
  • That same study also showed that from 2000-2015, more women were watching porn: from 37% to 51%
  • A different study conducted in 2015 of undergraduates aged 18-25 found that 55.6% had received sexual and reproductive health education.
  • Li Yinhe, the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) sociologist and sexologist, claimed in 2013 that pornography was the only source of sex ed in China.
  • Since then, China has tried to introduce more sexual education into public school curriculum, with many parents scandalized by the material.

Note: All the data above is from 2015 and earlier. I was not able to find more up-to-date information, possibly because it is getting harder to do such research.

Politicized pornography: It’s clear, however, that no matter what people do in private, the government of China takes a hard line against “vulgar” behavior both online and off.

  • In 2009, 22 members of a “wife-swapping” chat group were jailed under Article 301 of the criminal law. They were charged with “group licentiousness.”
  • In 2014, a Beijing-led crackdown meant to clean up the country’s image was launched against prostitution in Dongguan. However, it seems that the sex trade is alive and well again in the city, albeit in diminished form.
  • Since 2011, TechNode has published almost 200 articles about government action against “vulgar” and “obscene” content on China’s internet.
  • The specifics of the government actions in most cases of “vulgar” content remain unclear. However, we can see that over time, enforcement bodies have become more proactive and stricter in their treatment of content platforms as they apply a chilling effect to publishers, authors, and platforms alike.

Sex drive: Through millions of years of evolution, our bodies come encoded with certain drives and behaviors. The strongest are the most basic: fight, run away, consume, dispose of waste, and reproduce. For a vivid reminder of this, watch the BBC video “Iguana vs Snakes.” Both animals, with primitive brain structures, behave purely on instinct; the various systems of their bodies are perfectly tuned to react to certain stimuli in a certain way.

The drive towards reproduction (and the pleasure humans receive from the activity) are innate features of the human body. With the internet, more and more people are discovering and exploring their sexuality in ways that were never possible in previous eras. In China, online pornography is not only increasingly common, but it is also more in demand. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easier to find. Much like wall-jumping technology, adult content has joined the “dark forest” of China’s internet where word-of-mouth is the only guide.

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...

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