China's government has vowed to get tough on Internet pornography. Officials drove home their resolve this week, threatening to impose life prison sentences on those caught distributing pornography by computer. The new measures are triggering alarm that authorities may be using their war on pornography to further tighten government control of cyberspace. VOA's Luis Ramirez has this report prepared by Beijing-based writer Daniel Schearf.
Playing paramilitary computer games draw many university-aged people to Internet cafes in Beijing. But it is more than the thrill of bombing targets and blowing up virtual enemies that is luring Chinese youngsters to cyberspace these days. It is online sex.
In July, President Hu Jintao ordered police to enforce obscenity laws in cyberspace. The result has been what state media are touting as a war against online pornography. In the first two weeks of the campaign the government says it has shut down some 700 web sites and arrested more than 300 people.
Authorities say web site operators were involved in the production and distribution of lewd videos and photographs, as well as arranging for live sexual performances. The government is now threatening to impose life prison sentences on those who operate pornographic Web sites that register 250,000 hits or more.
China has an estimated 87 million Internet users, half of whom are 24 years old and younger. Officials say their campaign is meant to prevent them from being exposed to harmful materials.
"There's a large amount of inappropriate information on the Internet which ruins the mental health of the youth, has seriously affected the healthy growth of young people and has aroused wide concern and strong dissatisfaction among different sectors of society," says Jiang Yaoping, Vice Director at China's Ministry of Information.
The Communist government banned pornography when it took power in 1949, and for years the ban was effective. But, despite recurring crackdowns, the Internet has made accessing adult materials easier for many Chinese people.
China already censors Internet web sites it considers subversive, such as those relating to politically sensitive topics of Tibet and Taiwan or those critical of state policies.
International human rights groups say at least 63 cyber-dissidents were in prison in China this year. Some analysts worry the government may use this crackdown on pornography as an excuse to further silence dissent online and to increase control over communications.
Professor Derek Bambauer is a specialist on Internet censorship in China at Harvard University Law School in the United States. He says in 2002 China was only blocking about 13 percent of pornographic Web sites and so wiping out porn may not be the real priority.
"To give you a point of reference, Saudi Arabia, another country that has a filtering system in place, blocked about 86 percent of pornographic sites at the same time," he says. "So, while there is no doubt that they [China] are concerned about pornography, I don't think that that's actually the primary concern in this effort."
In China's cities such as Beijing, Chinese people have easy access to other sources of sexual stimulation. Outside Beijing's famous Friendship Store, where tourists go to buy gifts, hawkers sell pirated adult films.
There is also a growing business in sex toys, sold as "adult health care products." Moreover, prostitution is flourishing in urban areas.
In its pornography crackdown, the government has expanded the realm of censorship to include mobile phone text messages. Authorities say some people have been sending lewd messages via mobile phones.
This would mean monitoring China's 300 million mobile phone users, who are expected to send some 500 billion messages this year. Chinese authorities have encouraged people to report violators via a telephone hotline and a web site.