China shuts down its most popular piracy website—is it just about copyright?

Netizens wonder if the crackdown had something to do with Xi Jinping’s battle against ‘Western values’

Screen capture from yyets.com (Reren Yingish).

Shanghai police authorities raided on February 3 the offices of Renren Yingshi, a website that provides free streaming and crowdsourced subtitles of foreign films and series to its 800 million members. Fourteen people were arrested.

Authorities described the site as a “piracy gang,” claiming its operators profited around RMB 16 million yuan (US$2.5 million) from advertising and subscription fees.

While it is clear that the site has infringed the copyrights of many foreign productions, some Chinese netizens are wondering whether the crackdown was also motivated by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideological battle against “Western values.”

Renren emerged in 2004 as an online community for Chinese fans of U.S.-made films and series. Members shared pirated versions of them with homemade Chinese subtitles.

In 2006, the community opened to public access, allowing anyone to upload or download subtitles and videos. In 2010, People’s Daily praised Renren’s translation community as knowledge distributors of the internet era. Three years later, in 2014 after Chinese president Xi Jinping has fully established his leadership, the site was forced to shut down.

When it resurrected in 2016, Renren restricted access to registered members only. In recent years, it also launched a live-streaming application.

In January 2020, Shanghai police began investigating the site for “violating users’ rights,” which led administrators’ to suspend their entire operation. They placed a notice on the main page saying they were going to review all content to ensure they complied with Chinese law. This took around three months, and then the site went back online.

Last month, the administrators did another content review. This time, however, that didn’t save them from the police crackdown.

What drew the attention of netizens was that Shanghai police worked with the National Copyright Administration of China, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, and the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications.

On social media, many Chinese netizens spoke out in defense of the community. Some pointed out that the so-called profit generated from the platform couldn’t have been enough for maintaining the server or paying a small honorarium (of around 400 RMB per video) for the translators. Some are worried that they will be unable to watch foreign films if they can’t afford a VPN, an essential service for those looking to circumvent the great firewall. Not to mention the fact that since 2019 a few netizens have been punished for using VPN to access foreign sites.

Indeed, Renren isn’t the only website of this kind in China, as there aren’t a lot of legal channels for mainlanders to watch foreign entertainment. In order for movies and series to be imported officially, they must first be approved by the censorship authorities. And politically sensitive content isn’t the only thing that might be barred —  sexual or violent scenes are often cut out as well before they are screened on Chinese TV or cinemas.

Chinese netizens’ sentiments were best reflected in a post called “Mourning for the Renren subtitle translation community: We are not proud of copyright infringement but are ashamed of not being able to access copyright works” (悼人人字幕组:我们不以盗版为荣,但以看不到正版为耻). The post went viral on WeChat and Weibo before it was taken down.

The author, Yang Shiyang, explains how its millions of users view Renren:

在美剧迷心中,人人字幕组是个神一般的存在,是符号、是偶像、是icon,某种程度上说,这家字幕组是一代美剧迷的启蒙,是他们让美剧真正进入了一代年轻人的生活,且从此变得不可分割,即便后来各种字幕组遍地开花,分工愈细,风格各异,但人人依旧以其快速优质的翻译被奉若神明。
所以,它每一次“遇难”都会在剧迷群体里引发巨大震动。

Among fans of U.S. drama, the Renren subtitle translation community is like a god, it is a symbol, an idol and an icon as the community has helped a whole generation of US drama fans. Although similar translation communities were established later, Renren outrivals them all in terms of translation speed and quality. That’s why, whenever the site suspends its operation, people react strongly.

While admitting copyright infringement is wrong, the author explains how Chinese people are forced to resort to it:

明确地讲,盗版是错误的,为创作者和出品方付费天经地义,因为影视也是一种商品,但我们这里的问题在于这付费的正途不通。
如果说二十年前,中国的消费者还尚且没有足够的版权意识,那么现在,看看那些国内网站付费会员制的情况就会明白,无论意识层面还是消费能力层面,我们都已经没有问题,我们愿意给那些优质的娱乐内容付费,但我们举着钱无处可付。
谁能告诉我,我想看HBO、Netflix、Showtime、Hulu、amazon、AMC 、Apple+等等一系列最大众的流媒体内容,我该怎么办?墙伫立在我们面前,它巍峨坚固得让人绝望,但人类寻求精神满足的欲望与寻求肉身满足的欲望一样强烈且不可抵挡,所以,饥饿的人只能另寻门路,那些歪门邪道都是被逼无奈的选择。

Obviously, copyright infringement is wrong and authors and publishers should be paid for their work. But our problem is that we have no channels to pay.

Twenty years ago, Chinese consumers did not have a lot of awareness about copyright. Now, just take a look at the blooming of sites that provide subscribed content, we have the awareness and ability to pay for quality entertainment. But we have no channels to pay.

How can I subscribe to HBO, Netflix, Showtime, Hulu, Amazon, AMC, Apple + here? The great firewall is right in front of us. It is very strong and we feel desperate. But the human desire to fulfill spiritual needs is also strong and cannot be blocked. Hence, thirsty people look for a way out, and piracy is the choice of the helpless.

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