Tricia Wang visits China’s cyber cafes to investigate a national phenomenon that’s breaking through the Great Firewall and building community.

200 computer screens, stationed one foot apart, flicker through smoky air and fluorescent lighting. Some have as many as four males huddled around with their arms hanging on each other, mostly shirtless. It’s 11pm on Thursday, and even though discounted night hours haven’t started, the Internet cafe is near capacity. Occasional bursts of anger or joy from gamers sound out above the low chatter.

  • Lao Bing takes a sip of beer and pulls out a cigarette. His shirtless body is frozen in a perpetual slump, his chest hanging over the keyboard. Minuscule movements can be detected in his wrist as he moves the mouse over a rubber pad displaying an ad for affordable abortion services at a nearby hospital.
  • He types hurriedly into a keyboard crusted with crumbs and dirt. “Damn not working.” He tries again. “Down also.”
  • Lao Bing is doing what most males at the Internet cafe are doing, have done, or will be doing later on that night—searching for porn. Users across the world are drawn to this corner of the infobahn; some estimate that porn accounts for a full third of Internet bandwidth.
  • But finding porn in China isn’t as easy as finding a movie. Like the fleeting urges they inspire in viewers, sites regularly pop up and quickly fade away from the ethereal glow of the screen. The continuing hunt speaks to the drive for openness in its various forms.

There are more tools available for censorship

The foreigner’s image of China often includes Communist Party officials using censorship tools to prevent citizens from accessing and spreading political messages. We don’t think of people like Lao Bing, chilling in a room with hundreds of males looking at porn.

Authorities have capriciously enforced a pornography ban since 1949. But when China connected itself to the World Wide Web in 1994, authorities found themselves with a new challenge: censoring the relentless availability of pornographic websites.

Over the last 18 years, police stations have staged assemblies warning youth of the dangers of porn and the Internet. Anti-pornography posters with cartoon figures of school boys are in practically every cyber cafe. Announcements of large sting operations closing down tens of thousands of pornography sites at a time are routine.

  • A few times a year, the government-controlled media reports large-scale arrests of pornography site administrators. Looming in their collective memory is the 2005 life sentence of Chen Hui, who ran the nation’s largest site. But all the denunciations, moral policing, and incarcerations have not deterred a nation of males (the gender ratio at birth is about 120 males to 100 females) from porn consumption.
  • Another male, Tai Ge, is not like most of the cyber cafe patrons, who largely didn’t attend college. He graduated four years ago from one of China’s top universities. Tai Ge grew up in small room with his grandfather in the Northern countryside. Like most high-achieving rural students, he lived at a boarding school a few hours away in a room with 15 other males. Until college, he believed his teachers, whom the government trained to tell him the Internet is bad for students. Their version of the Internet was filled with games and misinformation.
  • Tai Ge didn’t find his way onto the Net until college, where a dorm mate had a computer and knew how to access porn. “Six of us would huddle around him watching the videos on his desktop screen.” When Tai Ge got his own laptop, he was most excited to watch porn by himself. “That’s when I learned how to masturbate.”
  • His dorm mate taught him to log onto the server and browse the carefully labeled videos to download overnight: “Japanese Nurse Gets Fucked by a Doctor,” “Student Teaches Aio Sora How to Give a Blow Job” (the Japanese brand is popular among students).
  • These videos were also being downloaded by thousands of others at his school. Users spend a significant amount of time downloading because they prefer to watch porn offline. Since producing and hosting is punishable by law, web admins regularly change domain names and servers, making their sites unstable. There’s no guarantee that the video someone sees today will still be there tomorrow. The best option is to download.
  • Downloading has become common practice throughout China; not just porn sites vanish and shift. Websites, comments, and blog posts can disappear if they catch a censor’s eye and are seen as embarrassing or threatening to the Communist Party. Responding to unstable URLs, a culture of caching web content has emerged through techniques like screenshotting.

The change of technology and MKSHFT

Chinese netizens are incredibly conscientious of screenshotting. The most popular instant messaging client in China, QQ Chat, integrates a screenshot button directly below the typing field. A glance at any Weibo microblog (think Twitter) spat between popular intellectuals reveals attached screenshots of past conversations. In social media donation campaigns, users screenshot their bank account transfers to the recipient’s account. Screenshotting isn’t just a technical habit; it’s an ingrained cultural technique.

But Tai Ge doesn’t just download; he also pays it forward by uploading. Content is made readily available by thousands of contributors of MKSHFT who, like Tai Ge, have spent hundreds of hours and gigabytes downloading porn from the Internet and then re-uploading it to a university-hosted server. He uploads any new porn he finds.

  • Tai Ge and others extend their sharing to the massive scale synonymous with China itself. They participate in Human Flesh Search Engines, crowdsourcing communities that scour Internet data sources to expose public corruption. Others are involved in movie and television fan translation teamsthat compete to translate Western series like Sherlock Holmes and Big Bang Theory overnight.
  • It may be in the quest for porn that many male college students learn the fundamental lessons about what makes the Internet work: sharing and openness make collaboration possible. These qualities are rare in an education system that rewards individual achievements over teamwork.
  • While political censorship and digital surveillance continue to cause suffering, most people in China don’t use the Internet to fight back directly; they use what brings them pleasure. And in spite of illegality, there’s a big gap between the government’s communication and its execution. Some citizens find freedom in exploiting this gap and others in closing it. 

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