How significant is China’s new crackdown on pornography?

Is the Chinese government’s web-wide crackdown on pornography, announced today, just about stopping porn? Given larger socio-economic issues in the country and the wide range of Chinese internet companies singled out for “severe punishment” by the Chinese government — leading search engine Baidu, foreign contender Google, and portals like Sohu and Sina — we wonder if it is a pretext for a broader crackdown on web companies. Could it be a ruse to disguise more general web censorship, especially against political dissent?

We asked some VentureBeat readers in China what they were seeing. Here are their responses.

First, from a well-placed entrepreneur and investor who chose to stay off the record:

China does these campaigns every year, though I don’t remember seeing seven ministries/agencies doing it jointly. They tend to fade after about a month.

I think this year’s will have more teeth. This may be the most sensitive year since the internet hit China: it’s the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding, the 20th anniversary of [the Tiananmen Square protests], 50th anniversary of the Tibet invasion, all in the context of a rapidly weakening economy. I think you will see much more rigorous web censorship and controls this year, and I would expect them to have more staying power than previous campaigns.

By the way, in exquisite timing, these [Not Safe For Work] pictures of actress Zhang Ziyi [excerpt above] hit the web hours after the new campaign was announced.

Another reader, a veteran of Chinese and foreign companies who also chose to stay off the record, added this colorful perspective:

Porn has always been a problem in the Chinese government’s eyes. There were multiple efforts in the past few years to curb the rather rampant soft core porn that is regarded as “unhealthy.” In recent months, the amount of explicit content has gone up significantly, so a crackdown is just due. But the Chinese government is very good at accomplishing multiple aims with one initiative, so the timing now of course has to do a bit with nervousness about the economy. By the way, crackdowns like this usually happen before Chinese New Year (January 25th) in order to drive a “harmonious” holiday. The government has a pretty good control on other “inappropriate” content already, so this is not a big deal in China.

More generally, this has been a very eye-opening year for the internet in China. There is the Hong Kong pop star Edison Chen’s naked pictures with a number of famous pop starlets; video porn on 56.com; Olympic “sex parties,” and most recently China’s most famous female star, Zhang Ziyi, has been caught with suggestive pictures with Vivo Nevi on a beach (see link above).

In the U.S., this is no big deal, but China is still a very conservative, Confucian, Oriental society, far from the openness of western countries. Just because the same internet technology is used in China doesn’t mean Chinese have the same value system as the U.S. Porn in China is considered as bad and sometimes worse than political dissent. For example, a year ago, a man was sentenced to death for operating an explicit porn site, while typically many political dissidents were just detained.

Lastly and most publicly, here’s what Kaiser Kuo, the group director of digital strategy for Ogilvy China, had to say:

I don’t think it has a thing to do with dissent: it’s just what it is, a crackdown on porn. They targeted some of the biggest web properties in China (Sina, Sohu, Tencent, Netease) as well as many other smaller sites, and they’re just trying to get rid of porn, which is still pretty pervasive on the Chinese internet despite many similar crackdowns in years past. They’re not dissuading anyone from using the internet. And they don’t use porn sites for cover the way hacks (warez, etc.) used to do it in the States. Keep this in context: look at what Australia’s doing to combat kiddie porn, even cracking down on peer-to-peer file sharing! Same kind of thing, but this has only taken the form of stern warnings so far.

Second-guessing the motivations of the Chinese state when it comes to internet policies reminds me of what Freud said. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, though, you’re right to see everything as a phallic symbol. Sure, there might be political motivations behind these sorts of crackdowns, and perhaps targeting these very high-profile websites like Baidu, Google, Sina, Sohu, Netease and Tencent is meant to send a message ahead of a sensitive year. It’s equally possible that with sex-related content all over the Chinese Web in 2008, from the Edison Chan photo scandal to people like “Kappa Girl,” they really are simply trying to crack down on people showing off their naughty bits.