Why Is China So Fascinated by Amateur Porn? Beijing's unwillingness to acknowledge a sexual revolution has helped boring sex tapes go wildly viral.

Denied legal access to pornography, China’s 649 millionweb users have often afforded unusually high status to low-grade footage of amateur sexual activity.

Why Is China So Fascinated by Amateur Porn?

July was a good month for voyeurism in China. The month began with a sprawling teahouse tape scandal on the eastern coast of Fuzhou and ended with a blurry, 27-second clip of a nude couple having discreet sex under a bridge, far to the west, in steamy Chengdu. Way up north in Shenyang, an enthusiastic couple’s display of affection while onboard a subway drew the attention of fellow passengers, not to mention Internet users everywhere. And then there was the apex of summer sex scandals: two randy students filming themselves in the dressing room of a flagship Uniqlo department store in Sanlitun, the main nightlife drag, right in the heart of the capital, Beijing.

Denied legal access to pornography, China’s 649 million web users have often afforded unusually high status to low-grade footage of amateur sexual activity. If the ensuing fuss over the Uniqlo tape — numerous memes, T-shirts, and tattoos — seemed a little much, the heavy-handed response, which included arrests and reprimands, was undoubtedly so. Vowing to completely purge the Internet of all such content, Beijing managed to place an otherwise unremarkable video along the fault lines of free speech: between a twitchy, humorless bureaucracy and a shrinking public space in which feminist activists, rights lawyers, and student exhibitionists are all squeezed.

From the viewpoint of an increasingly conservative government, the Uniqlo video and the reaction to it neatly encapsulate the declining standards of the age. The act it depicts is short, its cast young and slim; the content is narcissistic and so thoroughly branded that many at first thought it was some sort of guerrilla marketing campaign by Uniqlo itself. The dialogue, already forgettable — “Call me husband,” the bespectacled man croons to his distracted mate — reaches a laughable climax when an off-screen customer announcement begins droning about shopping opportunities on “the second and third floors.” And like a crass Hollywood sequel, the kids love it: Groups of selfie-snappers clamor before the vast façade of the offending Uniqlo every weekend, powered by social platforms like mobile app WeChat with its 549 million users.

Many grew up in the first flush of Internet sex culture, under a government in full denial (the needle has barely moved since, on either curricular or official views on sex). The restrictiveness cultivated pockets of extreme innocence and experience among millions of urban graduates: cliques who were loud about their adventurous habits and those who could barely discuss the subject among themselves. These groups tended to be exclusive, not absorbing much from the other, making assessments of sexual progressiveness an exercise in cherry-picking (however fruitful). One thing they did have in common: Because of the frequent, viral, and news-like nature of amateur sex films, almost everyone had seen one.

China’s down-low affair with DIY porn goes back years and starts with a celebrity scandal: the theft, in February 2008, of 465 private photographs from Hong Kong heart throb Edison Chen, featuring sexual encounters between Chen and famous names including married actress Cecilia Cheung and Gillian Chung, a pop starlet who’d long claimed to be a virgin. Publicly, the leak disgraced both Chen and his female costars, who received death threats and lost sponsorship deals. The online world, meanwhile, could not have cared less about their morals or more enjoyed their embarrassment: Chen was the mainland’s “most searched” term that year.

“Mainstream Chinese youth had never seen such sexually explicit images of their favorite stars,” wrote youth trends consultant Mary Bergstrom in All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth. “A change in youth’s attitudes became palpable.” The revelations seemed to untap an unquenchable prurience among the mainland Chinese, whose media, politically curtailed, funds itself through the relentless pursuit of entertainment news. Suddenly, sex tapes cropped up everywhere, with the public interest devolving into merely a matter of what interested the public. While Chen and public figures like 26-year-old reality star Yan Feng Jiao were deemed fair game, so too were the ordinary students secretly filmed coupling in a Hebei classroom. Or the young Qinghai-Tibet train attendant, thrust into Internet infamy by an act of revenge porn, released shortly after the Chen scandal.

The attention wasn’t always unwelcome. If the famous guarded their sex lives jealously, others saw the brief publicity that DIY porn provided as a potential route to fame. In late 2008, months after Beijing triumphantly hosted the Summer Olympics, a fascinated crowd of onlookers, toting handheld cameras, began mobbing the Shanghai No.1 Eastern Department Store. They were trying to catch a glimpse of a saleswoman who’d been dubbed “Kappa girl,” whose 12-minute homemade sex tape had just gone viral across the Chinese-language Internet. She worked for Kappa, a foreign sports brand, and for a few weeks in late 2008, “Kappa Girl” became the most infamous woman in China, where big-time pornographers risk ending up in jail for life. As a November 2008 editorial in the (usually prim) English-language state mouthpiece China Daily reasoned, “The obsessive attention given to the topic means public thirst for such subjects cannot be satisfied elsewhere.… The Kappa Girl madness has clearly shown that sex education in our schools has failed, despite a sexual revolution among mainstream society.”

Market signals suggest the revolution has been real and enduring. Although Kappa Girl’s tape was dull — fellatio on an anonymous recipient in an equally anonymous hotel room — its heroine, whose real name is Lin Jiani, was not. After being fired by Kappa for “tarnishing its image,” Lin pursued a life beyond her 15 minutes of notoriety with vigor. “How can I use my fame for profit?” she wondered aloud on a blog she opened in response to the attention: “I’m now sincerely looking for advertising sponsorship.” Lin offered an escalating series of rates, from $3,000 for a personal appearance to $7,500 for a modeling assignment.

For all her moxie, Lin seemed to overlook a basic principle: Pornography may be as common as prostitution, but it’s still technically illegal. While authorities forced a halfhearted response — Shanghai cops declared that Kappa Girl’s video was “one of the most popular downloads on the mainland” — Lin continued punching up. “It does not seem like I broke the law!” she riposted. “Those who are spreading my video and disseminating my news are breaking the law! Either way, I still look good on the screen.” When Harmony Films, a British outfit whose press release promised “consistently over-the-top productions that can compete with the best in the adult market,” offered Lin a movie contract, its marketing manager argued, “When China does open up to adult content, partnering with someone identifiable like Kappa Girl will help us gain a foothold in that market.”

While China’s authorities have been resolute to keep that market out, it has steadily swelled. If anything, the transgressive nature of amateur porn has been its most potent attractant. For viewers of the Uniqlo video, “the actual enjoyment cannot be separated from the police action,” Katrien Jacobs, a writer and researcher in pornography, media, and censorship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Foreign Policy. “The fact that there is very old-school legislation on pornography makes all these cases much more interesting.” The threat of getting caught “makes it so much more exciting for people to watch.”

The bar and club-packed district of Sanlitun, which Uniqlo dwarfs like a totem, has always loomed large in Beijing’s youth conscious. Controversial, fashionable, and aspirational (everything a Shenyang subway carriage is not), it carries now, like the grainy video, an illicit thrill. The brutal murder of a woman outside the same store last week, by a man wielding a samurai sword in broad daylight, has made the notorious spot only more so.

Flocking to pose at Uniqlo, the film’s fans are not simply gawkers but participants, insiders to a juvenile conspiracy against which authority, with its fusty views and outdated laws, can only fulminate. The Uniqlo film makes stars of the generation that delights in producing and sharing viral content — and shrugs off the adult world’s critiques.

In Blood Sex Tape, a 2007 documentary-style film, a Chinese couple’s sex video leaks online, leading the girlfriend to commit suicide in shame. In real life, the actors of the Uniqlo tape have proved less dramatic, answering more modern instincts. The male, intent on capturing every moment with his gold iPhone together with his vain partner, fascinated by her own naked reflection, could be a vignette of middle-class Chinese clichés about materialistic youth. Their poses are a private joke whose punchline was to appear in the same trivial news feed they mock. Even those drawn to the scene of the crime find its continued appeal oddly banal. “I went to check out the Uniqlo” in Beijing, a male friend recently remarked, perplexed. “It was boring.”

For the Japanese clothing company itself, now dependent on China for growth, boring is preferable to controversial. The scandal has managed to overshadow recent strikes in the southern city of Shenzhen promoting workers’ rights; Uniqlo CEO Tadashi Yanai, Japan’s wealthiest man, told the Wall Street Journal, “Just hearing” of the video “makes me sick. It’s disgusting.” The Chinese authorities were no less hyperbolic, given the nature of the offense. Internet overlords at the Cyberspace Administration of China declared the clip a “virus” that had “violated core socialist values.” Executives at Sina and Tencent were keelhauled, and six were arrested in connection with the video’s dissemination. Once more, the editor of the nationalist Global Times deplored wayward netizens for showing “low taste” toward “phenomenon that are moving further away from our noble traditions.”

It’s that “our” that’s the problem. Like any great civilization,

Chinese culture offers a richly variant canon of erotic art and literature that its current aging leadership would rather wish into (more distant) history. Appeals to “core socialist values” mean little to those pursuing the consumerist lifestyle on which China’s economic future now depends. It is the outlawing and attempted whitewashing of these sexual outlets that many believe lie at the root of the “phenomenon” the Global Times deplores. Pornography’s current illegality echoes sporadic strains of conservatism in China’s history, but the authorities’ insistence on a heavy prosecutorial tone brings them into more direct confrontation with present-day attitudes. Jacobs calls it “a system from another era” — the heavy hand of state censorship may have been relatively invisible to previous generations who got their news from state mouthpiece People’s Daily and their gossip from the street, but in the age of the Internet, where many have seen censorship in action, “there are so many young people who say outright that they cannot support — or even understand” the government’s approach.

It’s an approach less infused with morality than it might first appear; raunchy videos have proven a particularly virulent medium for challenging power and corruption, which is something only the government deems itself qualified to do. In 2013, a long-running honey trap, in which numerous city officials in the southern megacity of Chongqing were made complicit in a huge real estate scam, was exposed after a brief video clip depicting a middle-aged official, Lei Zhengfu, heaving over a supine 18-year-old, became world news within a day of its posting. Quite apart from the political fallout, there was extra, exquisite embarrassment for Lei, the frog-like fall guy, whose haplessly hasty performance earned him the name “Brother 18 Seconds.”

As with the Chen effect of 2008, Lei’s downfall spurred a torrent of similar revelations, like a copycat crime wave.

With each passing month of 2013, Chinese media discovered new images of yet another sorry-looking man in his mid-40s, dressed in socks or sometimes just a thong, who also happened to be the deputy secretary of a forestry department, or something, somewhere deep in China, far from Beijing’s view. In the right hands, it seemed like a bad sex tape could be a populist tool for wronged or disenfranchised victims to heap potent revenge upon moralizing Communist Party officials and hypocritical judges. Unusually, the whistle-blowers were often young women, turning the tables on their villainous male lovers. Like Kappa Girl, they insisted on their own narrative, an inversion of the old one, meting out retribution as a champion of the people.

This couldn’t be the case if there weren’t hordes of influential men willing to join Chinese youth in the country’s general loosening of attitudes. Top leaders may be almost certain their own behavior will escape broadcast — but the possibility casts a pall, and officially sex is sometimes discussed as if it were a threat to Communist Party strength. When the procession of mistresses coming forward with videotaped evidence seemed to go around the block, the People’s Daily was clearly fazed. “Mistresses are led by fallings out with corrupt officials to denounce them … both their motives are the same — to satisfy each other’s greed,” the Party mouthpiece claimed. “It is not the right path for the will of the people.” Cadres echo the Maoist rhetoric, with constant recourses to authoritarianism as the quick-fix solution.

It’s all part of a China where elements, however harmless, become a threat — from mistresses who share too much to students showing off in a department store. While official attitudes prefer to wall off these lifestyles as “un-Chinese,” persistent cracks expose the limits of censure, revealing a vibrant, diverse sexuality that’s often a shock to the system.

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