China has made much of its campaign against online pornography, but a wide range of sexual content remains accessible to its 94 million Internet users. The Open Net Initiative report found that the Chinese government blocks only seven of the top 100 Google results for "pornography" and three of the results for "sex."
"There is censorship of the Chinese Internet, but there's a lot more tolerance of sexual content," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "Online sexual materials are everywhere if you do a Google search and you know where to go."
Take, for, example, the case of Li Li, a young magazine columnist in the southern city of Guangzhou, who began blogging about her sexual exploits under the name Muzi Mei in June 2003. Li exposed some of the problems caused by rapid social change -- she said she had no knowledge of birth control when she started having sex -- as she captured national attention with her unrelenting frankness. She appeared in Chinese Cosmopolitan and Mangazine, and the state press published lengthy features on the "Muzi Mei craze."
In November 2003, the government decided that the story had gotten out of hand and banned the publication of a book of Li's blog entries. Li shut down her website and the media abandoned the story, but her writing resurfaced on other sites, while articles about her remained in the archives of sites like Xinhua. Since then, other women have begun writing about their sex lives online, and one recently posted nude photos of herself on her blog. Li, meanwhile, has quietly started keeping another blog, still using the name Muzi Mei, and had her book published abroad.
The government's treatment of Li is lenient compared with the punishment it gives to online political dissidents, Xiao said. "The mainstream media can debate on her and criticize her," he said. "Her book may have been banned, but she can travel. She has considerable freedom in that dimension." One month after Li's book was banned, online essayist Kong Youping was imprisoned for advocating democratic reforms, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is now serving a 15-year term.
Liu Kang, director of Duke University's program in Chinese media and communication studies, said the Chinese government's attitude toward sexual content is ambivalent. "It's like the way they treat copyrights -- it's half-hearted," he said. "The Communist government could be very effective in cracking down on certain areas, but looking at those sectors, it's pretty ineffective."
Competition in the media
In 2003, the Chinese government stipulated that newspapers and magazines must earn at least half of their revenue from voluntary subscriptions. In the following months, it shut down 673 publications that did not comply. Since then, many newspapers have effectively become financially independent, and a number have adopted flashy tabloid-style formats in an effort to attract readers and advertising.
Television has become similarly competitive. China restructured the state-owned CCTV last year to attract foreign investment and venture capital, with plans to make certain stations independent within three years. While China had just 100 channels 20 years ago, it now has 2,100, and in the largest markets stations vie aggressively for ratings.
At the same time, President Hu Jintao, who some had hoped would work toward a free press, has made it clear that many of the topics that might sell newspapers and attract viewers -- like corruption, police brutality and political reform -- remain off-limits. In early 2004 the government fired the staff of the popular Southern Metropolitan News, which had exposed the cover-up of the SARS outbreak, and jailed two of its editors. Editors and programming directors now find themselves in a bind: They must produce content that is relevant and attention-grabbing while avoiding an ever-shifting list of forbidden topics.
No wonder, then, that TV stations increasingly turn to racy content to attract viewers. While graphic sexual imagery is prohibited, infomercials and fashion programs frequently play to audiences' prurient interests, and late-night talk shows feature discussions on sexual health. "Sensational programs and tabloid news have really become the order of the day," said Duke's Liu, who is writing a book on Chinese television.
Dramas have also become more titillating, as sophisticated, locally produced series eclipse the low-budget historical sagas that once dominated Chinese television. "(Really, Really Want to) Talk About Love," a series that recently aired in Beijing, for example, unabashedly billed itself as the Chinese "Sex and the City," and the description wasn't far off. At times, in fact, "Talk About Love" ripped off whole plot lines from the American series. Gone are the explicit discussions of sex, but the show finds a lot of space for suggestion.