They Know It When They See It

Is all pornography banned in China?

The Chinese government started blocking Google on some computers this week after accusing the search engine of displaying “pornographic” links. And as of July 1, all computers sold in China will have Internet filtering software installed to block porn. Is all pornography illegal in China?

Yes. The People’s Republic of China has banned porn since its establishment in 1949. Anyone who produces, distributes, or purchases lewd magazines, books, or videos can be penalized. Usually the punishment is just a fine and a warning, but in 2005 the creator of China’s biggest porn site was sentenced to life in prison. Movie studios or filmmakers caught producing erotic films can lose permission to make movies altogether.

It’s unclear, however, what the government considers pornographic. The law itself is vague: Officials may target anything that “violat[es] public morality and harm[s] the physical and mental health of youth and young people.” At universities, performance art that features nudity is rarely prohibited. (It’s more likely to be banned if it involves pictures or video.) State-run bookstores will often sell books advertised as sexually explicit, but with the offending passages removed. The government makes an exception for sex education—which was taught in primary schools starting in 2002—although teaching materials often resort to euphemism rather than pictures of naked men and women.

The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, which oversees the media, cracks down periodically on pornography. In the 1980s, the government started a campaign against “spiritual pollution,” a deliberately vague term that included everything from Western movies to liberal political tracts to erotica. In 2002, the ministry of information issued new guidelines allowing censors to screen Web sites and e-mail for pornography as well as political dissent. Nevertheless, porn is widely available. Enforcement is uneven, and censors tend to be more lax in urban than in rural areas. It’s easy to buy books and DVDs at local street markets, especially in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing. And some of the most famous banned books, such as the sexually explicit 17th-century classic The Golden Lotus, are widely read.

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Explainer thanks Bruce Dickson of the George Washington University and Steve Lewis of Rice University.