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China Grapples With New Scourge -- Yellow Discs

Authorities, facing a growing pornography problem, crack down on X-rated material.

August 29, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The pregnant woman slices through the crowd on a busy sidewalk.

"Yellow movie," she whispers to two passing men -- the Chinese slang for pornography. Holding her belly, she guides them to a grassy area and lifts a clump of sod to reveal several knockoff discs from the U.S. and Japan.

Her eyes darting, looking for police, she makes the sale: 20 yuan, or about $2.40, for two video compact discs. Then, as quickly as she appeared, the soon-to-be mom is gone.

In cities across China, women hustle porn on pedestrian overpasses and at tunnel entrances. Many are pregnant; others carry 1-year-olds, often rented for as little as a dollar a day. The babies are both props and shields: They enable buyers to immediately identify the sellers, and the women exploit a loophole in Chinese criminal law that allows for only a brief detainment of pregnant women or those with infants.

"Everyone knows the Chinese need to do something to take these children out of harm's way," said the director of a China-based children's rights group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But how do you tell the Chinese government anything?"

In recent years, the government has taken a comparatively lax enforcement approach to sexually explicit movies, magazines and Internet images, all of which are illegal here.

This summer, however, frustrated government officials took new steps to deal with the burgeoning pornography problem, launching a nationwide crackdown on the sale of so-called yellow discs and the operation of pornographic websites.

President Hu Jintao, calling for a people's war against such "contaminated material," pledged to severely punish pornography purveyors.

"This is China's new big problem," said a Beijing official familiar with the anti-porn crusade. "Many people consider pornography the nation's No. 1 social ill, even more so than gambling and drugs. It's become that serious."

The crusade is the newest tactic waged by an authoritarian government frustrated by an American Summer of Love-style sexual revolution that has swept across China.

Only a generation ago, writing a love letter was grounds for punishment. Now China's airwaves are awash with "sex talk" radio shows, and graphic sex novels such as "Breakup Dawn" and "Happiness That Lasts Half-Day Long" have become bestsellers.

China's new sexuality has come at a price: Along with the spread of HIV and AIDS, the popularity of pornography among youths has Communist Party officials alarmed. Teens regularly surf porn at the Internet cafes that serve China's 90 million Web users. Many of them have personal computers and cellphone screens featuring soft-porn images.

A 2000 study showed that 70% of Chinese men younger than 30 said they had watched pornography in the preceding year. "I'm sure those percentages are even higher today," said William Parish, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who led the study. "The numbers are very similar to men of that age in the United States."

This appetite has spawned a growing underground industry.

In the largest case of its kind in China, 16 people in the southern province of Guangdong were tried this spring for distributing 4.4 million pirated pornographic discs nationwide. Beijing police recently closed the capital's biggest pirated porn video store, confiscating thousands of X-rated discs.

Government officials estimate that more than 500 domestic Internet porn sites operate on the mainland, but activists insist that the number could be 20 times greater. There also are countless X-rated Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards, they say.

Wang Jipeng knows just how arrogant China's porn producers have become.

The nation's leading private campaigner against online pornography launched his crusade after a friend told him a troubling story in May 2003: The man had caught his 13-year-old daughter downloading erotic messages from the Internet onto her cellphone. All her friends did it for fun, the girl said.

Wang has since written scores of online articles condemning Internet pornography. His pieces have run on Blogchina.com, a private site that launched its own campaign against online porn.

"These people live off pornography, and we threatened to break their so-called rice bowl," said Wang, who now works as a manager at Blogchina. "I've received 150 late-night calls from people threatening to cut off my fingers, beat me to death or kill my family."

Wang and other activists blame vague laws for the spread of online porn. But others complain that the laws against sexually related crimes are already draconian.

People convicted of running prostitution rings have been executed, and in the late 1980s a man was put to death for selling X-rated pictures of himself and his wife, a Beijing city official acknowledged.

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