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China Declares War On Electronic Porn

Web, Phone, Message Services Targeted

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page A16

BEIJING, Aug. 19 -- From the walled compounds where China's Communist leadership runs the country has come the word: no more porn. No more nudity on the Internet. No more late-night erotica on the phone. Goodbye to racy text messages on the mobile.

The party and government have launched what they call a people's war against electronic pornography. They have decreed that, after a summer-long campaign, plugged-in Chinese must be back on the sexual straight and narrow by the time the country celebrates National Day on Oct. 1.

Chinese officials say they have stopped issuing new licenses for Internet cafes and have closed 16,000 such venues, citing access to pornography. (2001 Photo Ng Han Guan -- AP)

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"This depraves social morals and especially brings great harm to the country's young minds," said Information Industry Minister Wang Xudong in announcing a new chapter of the anti-pornography campaign.

But even for China's authoritarian rulers, the struggle will not be easy.

In recent years, formerly strait-laced public mores have loosened up. Novels have begun to include sex as well as patriotism. Radio has opened the airwaves to talk shows that in the past would have made listeners blush. Prostitution, abolished when the Communists took over in 1949, has made a comeback.

The new attitudes, combined with a nationwide fascination with things electronic, have resulted in a flourishing market for Internet pornography, telephone sex services and text-messaged smut. Fang Xingdong, a well-known Internet analyst, estimates that at least 1,000 pornographic Web sites have been operating in China. Many service providers in China have received as much as 40 percent of their income from people visiting porn sites, he said.

Not anymore. Chinese police have announced that since the crackdown began July 16, they have shut down about 700 pornographic Web sites and arrested 329 people involved in their operation. One operator in Sichuan province, identified as Deng Minjiang, was sentenced Monday to a year and a half in prison for spreading pornography via his Singing Phoenix Web site and its more than 200,000 visitors.

In addition, the government reported that it has stopped issuing new licenses for Internet cafes, which are important venues for the millions of young Chinese Web surfers who cannot afford their own computers. During a sweep of existing cafes, 16,000 were shut down for reasons including the availability of pornography, officials announced.

The Chinese government periodically has organized anti-vice campaigns, aimed at the resurgence of prostitution or books and films that fail to meet the official definition of decency. But the current campaign is the largest such crackdown on electronic pornography, said Fang, chief executive and senior analyst at Chinalabs.com, an Internet research and consulting institute.

Wang, the information industry minister, announced Wednesday that the campaign has now been expanded to include phone and messaging services, which until recently were widely advertised in newspapers, including those run by the government. Many such services have long offered weather reports or advice to the lonely and lovelorn. Others have specialized in playing certain kinds of music. Some, however, have started providing sexual conversations or messages.

"With the rapid development of the paid call service market in China, some lawbreakers make use of this form to spread obscene information and even conduct prostitution," Wang said in a teleconference call with Chinese journalists.

The authority of the government to decide what people can view on the Web or hear on the phone has not been questioned. Fang, the Web consultant, called the campaign a good idea. "There is too much porn on the Internet," he said.

In China, information of all kinds traditionally has been closely monitored by the government. The press and the Internet remain carefully censored by the party's publicity department despite the economic and political reforms of the last 25 years.

The Internet, with more than 80 million users in China, has posed a special problem for authorities. While it is a necessary tool for the economic growth that officials seek to stimulate, its universality also has made it a window on information from outside the country -- pornographic as well as political -- that is difficult to monitor and control.

Even within the country, electronic communications have proved a difficult target for the government's security services. For instance, information on last year's SARS epidemic spread across China via text messages on the country's ubiquitous cell phones well before it was released in the government-controlled media.

At the same time, the government-controlled press has been filled in recent months with reports of youths being led astray by their fascination with the Internet or phone sex. The official People's Daily reported that a 16-year-old boy in Guangdong province got his poor parents into financial trouble by racking up $200 worth of bills for two weeks of phone sex calls. The New China News Agency told of several secondary school girls lured into work as Shanghai nightclub hostesses by a man they had corresponded with online.

As Wang indicated, many government officials, particularly those old enough to remember the ascetic values of early Communist days, have been dismayed by such stories. Luo Gan, a member of the party Politburo's Standing Committee, said recently that families and the government should emphasize "improving the ideology" of young Chinese to end delinquency.

"Another reason I believe the government launched this campaign now is that it is summer vacation," Fang said. "The Internet has become the main entertainment for students. They have so much spare time and so little supervision from their parents during summer vacation. As you know, many youngsters visit pornography Web sites at an Internet bar or at home."

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

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