China’s Porn Ban: Has It Been Successful?

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Want to know more about censorship of porn in China?

Considered a ‘social evil’, pornography is strictly prohibited in China and has been since 1949 when the communist party took control. State censorship laws have encompassed all aspects of porn including media like DVDs, magazines and books. In 2002, the ban also came into force to cover pornography online. As we all know, where there’s a will there’s a way and we wanted to know how successful the ban on pornography in China has been.

In this feature, we ask the questions why and when did China ban pornography, how it’s being enforced and whether or not the ban is effective.




A Brief History of Porn in China

Erotic art and literature in China can be dated back well over 1,00 years ago to the Tang Dynasty. However, sensibilities over this kind of material started a few centuries later in the Yuan dynasty when the first official prohibition of adult content began.

It wasn’t until the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949 though that the current ban was imposed.

porn in communist china ban on porn

Communist China is not a place where porn is welcome. Image via Flickr.

Initially, during the fifties and sixties, it is thought that this censorship was pretty effective and ‘official’ reports reveal that almost no material of this nature could be found in China during this period.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s when pornography received a massive boost across many Western nations with legalization that China began to experience difficulties enforcing this ban. Coupled with increased availability with the introduction of Betamax and VHS tapes, China began to take part in the black-market trade of smuggling blue movies. Actually, they were known as yellow videos with ‘yellow’ now having the same meaning for the Chinese as ‘blue’ does for those in the Western world.

With Hong Kong still being under British colonial rule at this time, the Wanshan archipelago was a notorious import point for these videos. However, it is interesting to note that (at the time) the only people who could have viewed them were those people who had video players. A rare and expensive luxury, this would only have been high-ranking officials in the party.

By the 1980s, the influx of adult material was too wide-spread to ignore and the Chinese Communist Party began a programme of serious crackdowns. Police were ordered to confiscate all pornographic content whether these were yellow videos, audio cassettes, printed media or even hand drawn illustrations.

history of china's porn ban has it been successful

‘Blue movies’ became ‘yellow tapes’ once they were imported into China. Image via Pixabay.

In 1985 new laws were passed to support  these actions and to further suppress the trade in pornographic material.

Over the course of four years, arrests, convictions and severe penalties were made en-masse across China. One high-profile arrest of a railway worker in Shanghai resulted in the death penalty.

By 1988, the government had adopted yet more measures to deter producers and distributors. Among harsher penalties for pornography dealers, it was laid down that if the total value of their materials exceeded 150,000 Chinese Yuan ($22,140) that life imprisonment should be imposed.

The wave of anti-pornography action continued to gain momentum and a few weeks after the Tiananmen Square massacre in July 1989, more than 60,000 policemen launched a huge investigation into booksellers and publishing houses. In just two months, more than 2,000 companies were put out of business with around 11 million magazines and books being confiscated.

By time the 1990s rolled in, the government’s anti-pornography campaigning had reached fever pitch and one of the country’s top leaders, Deng Xiaoping announced that the death penalty was the only suitable penalty for (some) publishers of erotica.

It will come as no surprise that, in 1990, this suggestion became enshrined in law and is still technically in place today.

In 2002, a ban came into force which covered pornography online.

china ban porn internet

Image via VPNs R Us.

The Laws on Porn in China

The current laws on pornography are strict and, if found in possession, offenders face up to three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Chinese Yuan ($3,000). The potential punishment gets more severe for large distributors who can expect a life sentence for such crimes of ‘spiritual pollution’.

And the laws are not just there for ‘effect’ with China’s government using them frequently and often to clampdown on pornography across the country. Some high-profile examples of where these have been used include:

  • In 2004 a huge nationwide attack was launched against internet pornography that used complex filter systems to block domestic and overseas sites. Almost 700 websites were closed down and more than 300 people were arrested as a result of the campaign. One offender was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
  • In 2008, the government issued strong warnings and threatening large fines to producers of audio and video content that was found to contain ‘vulgar material’.
  • In 2009, 5,000 arrests were made in a similar targeting campaign which focused on those who were guilty of distributing porn online.
  • One man was sentenced to life in prison for using a sex phone line. He reportedly ran up a bill of 510k Chinese Yuan ($75k) by calling the line over 180 times.
  • In 2010, according to Reuters, 5,000 suspects were arrested in another clampdown on internet porn with around 60,000 websites being shut down.
  • In 2014, one of the largest online porn operators in the country was sentenced to life in prison.

How Effective is China’s Porn Ban?

If the ban is intended to eradicate pornography in China then we can categorically state that it has not been successful. However, there are more ways to approach this question with perhaps the most useful being to rephrase it and ask To what extent has the ban on pornography in China been effective?’.

To answer this, we found some research to help us.

‘A Peep at Pornography Web in China’

In a paper compiled by scholars at Xian Jiatong University, researchers examined online porn sites and pages available from within China for a period of 10 months between March 2009 ad January 2010. The data was analysed as part of network traffic from one of the countries internet service providers (Northwest Net).

They found a total of 1,826 porn sites and 92,950 porn pages. Of these, just 12.8% were found to be hosted on servers from within the country, the vast majority being sites hosted overseas.

The paper did not conclude any nationwide statistics about how wide spread the availability and demand for porn was in China but they did find anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is rising subculture of homemade and amateur porn.

There is certainly lots of corroborating reports that show DIY porn on the increase which includes taboo stories and erotic literature as well as webcam films.

china's porn ban has it been successful amateur porn

The market for amateur Chinese porn is growing. Image via Pornhub.

‘People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet’

Author of the above book (published in 2011) about the culture of erotica and pornography in modern China, author Dr Katrina Jacob is quoted as concluding:

“…in the age of Internet activism and a tightening of Internet censorship. It shows that despite the total ban on pornography, Chinese people have developed an impressive porn industry and progressive sex cultures.”

In further interviews, Jacob goes on to explain that the Chinese have a penchant for Japanese porn which, despite the huge gap between the two cultures in terms of liberation, is based on a shared ideal of femininity, innocence and purity. It would seem that, for the most part, Western porn is viewed as being too ‘coarse’ with the women far too ‘active’ for the likes of Chinese men.

In a 2011 interview, Jacobs also remarked:

“There are several statistics that show the net-porn industries are surviving and flourishing despite the ban. It seems indeed that porn cannot be banned and that the PRC government is perhaps even secretly letting it into the country.”

University of Chicago

Researchers at the North American education institute conducted sample surveys of young Chinese men to study their porn viewing habits. Their report concluded that 70% of the men interviewed (all under the age of 30) had watched pornography in the preceding 12 month; a similar rate to that in the U.S.

Author of the ‘People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet’, Dr Jacobs may have light to shed on this:

“I have interviewed many students who have said that pornography is their only sex education.”

Durex Global Sex Survey

According to the 2005 Global Sex Survey conducted by the condom manufacturers Durex, 16% of respondents from China reported that they owned pornography. Whilst this was the lowest figure presented by the study, it does suggest that, for more than one in ten Chinese people, the government’s ban on porn has not been effective.

china ban porn collection

16% of the Chinese own pornography of one kind of another. Image via Flickr.

Pornhub Insights

According to one of the largest porn tube hosting sites in the world, China continues to access its servers and the company regularly reports on trends and statistics from the country. Although there has been no dedicated report just on China, figures from the last few years suggest that:

  • Hentai porn is popular in China.
  • VR porn is most popular in China, Thailand and Hong Kong.
  • As a proportion of all search terms coming from China, BDSM represents 1.1% of the traffic.
  • China’s appetite for porn featuring pregnant women ranked them at No 26 globally.

In a report from 2014 covering the average session duration on Pornhub by country, China clocked a very respectable online time of 14 minutes and 34 seconds.

China’s Porn Ban: A Success?

Given all of the above, it would seem that to some degree the ban on porn is effective merely at limiting the amount of porn being accessed by the Chinese people. It has certainly not eliminated the availability of adult material, just suppressed how easily it can be obtained.

There are plenty of reports that bootleg pornographic DVDs are readily available from street vendors who often use children or pregnant women to sell the products as, under Chinese Law, they cannot be detained. Known as ‘yellow discs’, porn movies are sold for a few dollars.

Technology has made accessing porn easy despite porn censorship laws. Image via Pixabay.

Online pornography too is readily accessible for those with even limited technical know-how. The sheer volume of Chinese fans for popular JAV stars is widely known and the Japanese porn industry is all too aware of their appeal in Mainland China.

Sharing and viewing adult content in China may be illegal but the ban, in our opinion, is only partially effective. As Robert Collier once said, ‘Supply always comes on the heels of demand.’

Featured image via Pixabay/Pixabay/Pixabay.

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