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Several major Chinese government owned companies have teamed up with Alibaba to form a streaming video service that may force an early end to Netflix’ China ambitions.

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SARFT’s Toothless Censorship Salvo


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

July 12, 2012

In the past few years China’s streaming video sector has grown into a huge, nearly censorship-free entertainment zone, the platform of choice for hundreds of millions of viewers who have turned away from the watered-down, propagandized—and for many, unwatchable—fare that fills the PRC’s broadcast airwaves. China’s equivalents of Youtube, Netflix and Hulu comprise a multi-billion dollar industry that thrives on offering genuine entertainment, replete with the sex, violence, swearing, and other sins and vices that offend the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) notions of what is ‘appropriate’ for its citizens.

It came as no surprise, then, when China’s morality watchdog, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), proclaimed this week that websites must henceforth pre-screen all videos—particularly made-for-web dramatic series, ‘micro movies,’ and user generated content—before making them available online. In its “Notice on the Further Strengthening of Regulations on Online Dramas, Micro Films and Other Online Audiovisual Programs”, SARFT expressed its concerns and its rationale for tighter controls:

“In recent years, online dramas, micro films and other online audiovisual programs have developed rapidly as a new form of online culture. But problems of vulgarity, tastelessness and dramatization of violence and sexuality have appeared in some programs, some are full of vulgar language, and some intentionally pander to base interests . . .”

SARFT goes on to say that it holds site administrators responsible for violations of its policies, and that it expects these administrators will remove “all violence, pornography and some swearing.”

SARFT’s pronouncement, which was articulated in a published series of answers to reporters’ questions, was not so much a statement of new policy as a reiteration of an old one. Everyone who can click on a web video link knows that salacious content is prohibited, and the providers of such videos are well aware that they have been trafficking in contraband. But the rewards for distributing such populist content have been so bountiful, and the risks so minimal, that web vendors have seen no reason to curtail the flow of illicit entertainment. Without it, they wouldn’t have much of a business.

As I see it, SARFT’s proclamation is really a giant admission of failure and frustration that it has become impossible for the censors to do their job, that the task of policing video on the internet is just far too big. As David Bandurski wrote for the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, “It remains to be seen how SARFT intends to enforce these regulations, particularly in the case of user-generated content. “If followed to the letter, [compliance] would require massive resources.”

The tension between the CCP’s desire to shut out all undesirable content, and the general population’s desire to access information and entertainment, has clearly reached a critical point. Although SARFT justifies its regulations by citing the concerns of unnamed “netizens” who had urged it to take action to protect young people’s mental health, a review of China’s blogging sites in fact reveals a heavily negative reaction to the SARFT pronouncement. As a reporter for Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper vented on Weibo: “You even want to concern yourself with the number of flies in the latrine! What is there that you don’t want to control? There’s not a single thing you can manage properly! And you still think the world will stop spinning if you don’t control it.”

Something’s got to give. Either SARFT shuts down the Chinese Internet completely, a highly improbable scenario, or the CCP learns to make peace with the fact that it can’t possibly exercise control over every single human impulse of its 1.3 billion people.  With a new leadership regime set to take power starting this Autumn, we’ll soon see which way the PRC’s political winds will blow.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at