Police in Shanghai have raided a popular video-sharing site that offered foreign films and TV shows to more than eight million registered users, cutting off a key source of uncensored content for Chinese viewers.
Police detained 14 people in a Feb. 3 raid on the offices of the Renren Yingshi video-sharing app and website, on suspicion of copyright piracy linked to more than 20,000 Chinese and foreign-made movies and TV shows.
Suspects were detained in the eastern province of Shandong, the central province of Hubei and the southwestern region of Guangxi, ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper the People's Daily reported.
"Investigations revealed that the suspects had set up a number of companies which were involved in distributing, operating, and maintaining the Renren Yingshi mobile app and a related web portal by setting up or leasing servers in China or overseas," the paper reported.
People’s Daily reported that over about two years the gang gained more than 8 million users registered on the site.
The raid on Renren could signal a wider crackdown on hundreds of sites providing Chinese-language subtitles for foreign-made video content, often staffed by volunteer translators.
These subtitling sites have meant that millions of viewers in China had access to shows deemed too sensitive to air in China, including Game of Thrones, The Mandalorian, and Queer as Folk, the South China Morning Post reported.
In recent years, China has shut down similar sites including Kuaifeng, Baofengyingyin, and BT Paradise, as well as the Shengchengjiayuan and Sashou.com subtitling groups.
"They have been treading a fine line between expanding their audiences and not drawing undue attention from authorities, who would shut them down for not following the rules and launch crackdowns against copyright infringement," the paper said.
"The work of these subtitling groups has had a certain positive impact in recent years, allowing internet users to see certain content," Zhang Hongbo, director-general of the China Written Works Copyright Society, told state news agency Xinhua.
"However, they need to abide by copyright law and relevant international intellectual property treaties to which China is a signatory," Zhang said.
Renren's own subtitle group was set up in 2003 by Chinese students studying in the U.S. and Canada, and quickly expanded into one of the biggest subtitling operations in China.
Fear of uncensored content
Liu Lipeng, a former employee of the Chinese video site LeTV, said the key motivation behind the raid on Renren was more likely linked to a fear of uncensored content being accessible to Chinese viewers than to concerns over piracy.
"The other shoe has finally dropped," Liu told RFA. "There won't be much opportunity to translate foreign movies and TV shows in future."
"Totalitarian countries are terrified that culture from the free world could awaken people's humanity, sense of justice and morality," he said.
"People who watch a lot of foreign content almost feel like they're living in a normal world, as if they are tuned into the values of the free world," Liu said.
"This is the thing that totalitarian states fear the most, and they'll do everything in their power to combat it," he said.
The raid came after a Jan. 30 meeting of the CCP's Politburo agreed to prioritize a nationwide crackdown on intellectual property violations, which was followed with an article by general secretary Xi Jinping in the party journal Qiushi, endorsing this approach as a national strategic goal.
"We must step up administrative enforcement, and focus on key areas where there is an effect on public opinion," Xi wrote.
Impact on domestic product
Ji Jiabao, a student at University of Wisconsin Law School, said cutting China off from global culture would be detrimental to China's own creative media productions.
"If you shut down these websites and have no other channels for people to have contact with, and consume, foreign cultures, it may have a negative impact on domestic cultural innovation," Ji said.
"China would probably not have been able to export its own cultural products to the rest of the world ... if people hadn't been raised on Renren Yingshi," he said.
Former state media intern Xianzi lamented on her Weibo account: "How much of our generation's literary awakening has been based on these volunteer subtitling groups? Do we not deserve to see literary works without official permission?"
Former Renren user Daisy, who declined to be named, said she had watched the "Lord of the Rings" movies and the U.K. historical drama "Downton Abbey" around 10 years ago.
She said she doesn't believe in the claim that the crackdown is linked to piracy.
"We are talking about the CCP, which steals stuff from other people all the time: are they really going to start arresting people over intellectual property rights?" Daisy said.
"They just don’t want us to be exposed to anything from overseas," she said. "China is becoming more and more like North Korea."
China's newly revised Copyright Law will come into effect on June 1, with updated regulations on copyright protection online and massively increased compensation for successful infringement lawsuits.
Reported by Xue Xiaoshan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.