China’s war on porn takes on erotic e-books

A screenshot of Sina's book website
A screenshot of Sina's book Web site.

Literature lovers attempting to visit the 读书 (reading) vertical on one of China's top Web portals, Sina.com.cn,  were in for a shock Friday: The Web site has been censored, with most reading material removed.

Visitors to book.sina.com.cn were greeted with a top story that ran under the simple headline "Apology," and a pink pop-up box that advised readers that the Sina reading vertical was being taken offline while undergoing a “a self-correction action" after finding "inappropriate content."

The crackdown on one of China's most important online companies (Sina is the company that owns the important Sina Weibo microblogging service) was a big story in state media, with CCTV carrying a long segment on it Thursday night and People's Daily making it a front-page story Friday.

So what did Sina do wrong? It may seem strange in an era when "Fifty Shades of Grey" has become a mainstream part of U.S. culture, but the answer appears simple: Sina allowed erotic e-books to be published on its site. According to People's Daily, 20 articles were "confirmed to have contained lewd and pornographic content" after a large number of public tip-offs. Two videos were also found in another section of the Web site, the state newspaper reported.

Some of the e-books were mentioned in media reports. "The dream lover of every woman in the village: The village doc," was one, while another was titled "The unethical love story of a beautiful young wife: The mistress of the town." Chapters from one book (titled: "Take the belle of the village by force: Beauty in the mountainous village") could be found online at other Web sites – while erotic in nature, it appeared to use tame language and euphemisms. Two of the videos removed from Sina vertical had the titles "Women’s orchestra" and "Bikini beauty performing." Sina's apology suggests that these articles and publications were "individual writers and third party contractors."

"Some of these articles were as long as 500-plus chapters and clocked millions of clicks [...] imperiling social morals and seriously harming minors' physical and mental health," said a statement from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, quoted by People's Daily. Xinhua reports that Sina has had two licenses revoked and was forced to pay up to 5 million yuan ($800,000), though the economic impact on the Web giant is likely to be limited.

This high-profile case appears to be part of a broader campaign to crack down on pornography and other unsavory behavior, titled "Cleaning the Web" by the Chinese state. According to official reports, China has shut down 110 Web sites and 3,300 social media accounts since the crackdown began in mid-April.

Xu Sky contributed reporting from Beijing.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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