Video Subtitling Site Founder Sentenced To 3.5 Years in Prison; Hollywood Films Struggle in China

Liang Yongping, founder of the video subtitling group and streaming site YYeTs Renren Yingshi (人人影视), was given a hefty fine and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for piracy. He was arrested in February along with 13 others. The popular streaming site, once fêted by People’s Daily for allowing Chinese youth to “taste the joys of study,” was dedicated to providing free, Chinese-captioned streams of foreign television shows, movies, and videos. At the South China Morning Post, Guo Rui reported on Liang Yongping’s sentence and the reasons for the popularity of Chinese subtitling groups:

The founder of video download and streaming website Renren Yingshi was on Monday sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison and fined 1.5 million yuan (US$230,000) for pirating more than 30,000 Chinese and foreign television programmes and films.

[…] Piracy has been rampant in China partly because of strict import quotas imposed by the authorities, limiting how many foreign films and TV shows – which have a huge following among young Chinese – can be shown legally each year.

[…] In addition, China has no film rating system, with state censors exercising strict control over content by cutting scenes they deem politically sensitive, violent or vulgar. [Source]

Authorities’ stated reason for targeting Renren Yingshi was a renewed commitment to intellectual property rights. Some suspect that the site also fell afoul of official efforts to limit and control the importation of foreign culture into China. Wang Ying, an associate professor of law at Beijing’s Renmin University, told Nikkei Asia that the authorities need to allow more access to foreign cultural products: “Even a prairie fire cannot burn all the weeds. When the spring breeze blows, weeds vigorously grow up again.” At Sixth Tone, Fan Yiying and Zhu Zimo reported that Chinese authorities’ attempts to limit the importation of “unhealthy works” has not diminished demand for uncensored foreign television:

Foreign movies and television shows — mostly in English — are popular in China, but the majority are not available legally. Companies like YYeTs — which operated under different names since 2003 and had over 6 million subscribers on its website — emerged to fill the gap by not just providing pirated copies online but also with Chinese subtitles, making them accessible to a wider audience.

[…] “China strictly manages publications to prevent the import of unhealthy works and works with ulterior motives,” Chen Binyin, partner at Shanghai-based Boss & Young Attorneys at Law, told Sixth Tone. “Copyright ownership is not dependent on registration in China, rather, it arises automatically, upon completion of the creation of works.”

[…] “China is paying more attention to copyright issues, so I foresaw that this day would come sooner or later,” [Zhang Yating, a 29-year-old Shanghai native] said. “But our demand for foreign TV shows will not disappear.” [Source]

The Party seems less convinced about the need for foreign TV shows and films. The latest five-year plan for the film industry posits that “the Party’s total leadership over film work” is central to the country becoming a “strong film power.” In a report on the rise of China’s domestic film industry, state broadcaster CGTN noted that domestic films make up 80% of China’s total box office revenue, and that 60% fewer foreign films were released in 2021 than in 2019. This year, the domestically produced patriotic blockbuster The Battle of Lake Changjin became China’s highest grossing film ever. Comments critical of the film have been heavily censored on Chinese social media, and critics of the film risk arrest.

A number of Hollywood films expected to perform well in the Chinese market have seen their releases delayed or sidelined. The superhero movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which prominently features Mandarin dialogue, is one such unreleased movie—perhaps due to leading man Simu Liu’s comments on Chinese history. At Variety, Rebecca Davis reported on a number of Marvel films and Hollywood blockbusters that seem unlikely to be approved for release in China:

Officials have repeatedly pushed pause on imported revenue-share films since July, when they cleared the docket of foreign films to make way for propaganda movies feting the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party.

Most notable among them are the three Marvel films “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and “The Eternals,” which have minimal chance of ever hitting the Chinese big screen.

Other studio films submitted for approval without any release news so far include Warner Brother’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy” (U.S. release: July 16) and “Reminiscence” (Aug. 20), Disney’s “Ron’s Gone Wrong” (Oct. 22) and “Encanto” (Nov. 24); Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (Oct. 1); and Paramount’s “PAW Patrol” (Aug. 20) and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (Nov. 10). [Source]

Even films not slated for release in China have been targeted by state media. The Global Times labeled Chloe Zhao’s Eternals a whitewash of Japanese aggression in World War II, and asked rather bizarrely, “Why didn’t Zhao make a black gay superhero kneel and burst into tears to apologize to the city of Nanjing?” Zhao was earlier the target of nationalist backlash for an interview in which she said “there are lies everywhere” in China. It also published a report highly critical of Disney’s Christmas advertisement, which featured a Black man as a step-dad to two Asian children.

Hollywood studios often self-censor to pave the way for smooth theatrical releases in China. John Cena’s Mandarin language apology video earlier this year was but the most striking example of Hollywood’s willingness to comply with Chinese censorship. The Atlantic’s Shirley Li explored the motivations for Hollywood’s choices in an interview with PEN America’s James Tager, who wrote the organization’s landmark report on Hollywood censorship:

The Chinese government encourages this chilling effect by setting confusing, ever-shifting expectations, [James Tager, the research director at PEN America] told me. Time-travel narratives like Back to the Future were deemed “frivolous” and disrespectful of history—especially if such stories suggested the ability to alter reality. But 2012’s Looper, featuring scenes shot in Shanghai, with dialogue depicting China as a representation of the future, made it past censors. A culture of trying to predict the country’s needs is now the norm: Stories portraying Chinese characters as antagonists or featuring disagreement with Beijing in regions such as Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang have been assumed off-limits. But China has also banned scenes from Bohemian Rhapsody, apparently for depicting same-sex relationships, and prohibited Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest altogether for including ghosts and cannibalism.

[…] Supplication, then silence: That’s consistent with Hollywood’s larger publicity strategy when the hint of a China-related scandal arises. “The reason why no one wants to talk about this is because there’s no advantages to talking about this,” Tager told me. “They want this issue to go away.” [Source]

This brand of censorship causes audiences across the globe to lose out. As Rebecca Davis of Variety told Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: “Think of all the other kinds of ‘Farewells’ we could have, and all the other types of stories that could be made if information could flow more freely between the two countries…if there wasn’t such a risk to tell those stories bravely.”


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