After a long day of promoting democracy abroad, the US does not want to be reminded that the world’s most populous country is still, despite appearances, non-democratic. And although China garners an occasional sound-byte admonishment for its dismal human rights record — they make us look halfway decent — the real attitude of the US government toward China is better seen in our business practices. For example, the search engine Yahoo! collaborates with the Chinese government to block access to websites with subversive content, and to report the dissemination of “harmful information.“ An international watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, recently accused Yahoo! of providing documents that led to the arrest of Shi Tao, a journalist who has criticized the government. Shi has since been sentenced to ten years in prison. Yahoo! justifies its complicity with state censorship by arguing that it is bound by the laws of each country in which it operates, a diplomatic “hear no evil…” Recently, however, a powerful American lobby group has begun to petition the government for stronger enforcement of US law within China. This is not a human rights organization or a foreign policy think tank, but rather the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Their concern is not government censorship or persecution of dissident artists. The problem with China, they claim, is massive copyright infringement being committed through DVD piracy, and in terms of potential profit loss, it is no exaggeration to say that China is the new Napster.
By now those who are in the know about global economics seem to agree that China is the next superpower, and signs of increasing cosmopolitanism abound in the Special Economic Zone (read: Capitalist fiefdom) of Shanghai. English is still not widely spoken, but walking down the city’s streets, you are often addressed with the salutation, “You need a DVD,” and occasionally with disconcerting variations like “You need a pants.” If you agree with this assessment, you are then led to a storefront, apartment, or back alley, where a purveyor reveals crates full of pirated American DVDs. The selection is often impressive, featuring art-house and cult classics, Criterion Collection titles, and hard-to-find foreign films that would make the staff at Kim’s swoon. Each disc sets you back between six and ten yuan, or roughly 80¢-$1.20. With a few exceptions, like a Russian-dubbed version of Batman Begins that appears to have the subtitles from Pooty Tang, the quality of the product is excellent. These are not your Chinatown-camcorder-in-the-movie-theater quality bootlegs. You’re buying special features, subtitles in several languages, and best of all, completely faithful copies of the cases (although the language barrier does reveal itself here: the cover of Kill Bill Vol. 1 advertises the blurb, “The movie feels incomplete!”). By night, Shanghai is a bazaar of street corner cinephiles.
Over the last few years, DVD purchases have overtaken ticket sales as the largest piece of Hollywood’s pie. Of the $84 billion total revenue Hollywood made globally in 2004, it is estimated that DVD and video sales made up over two thirds. The spike in home movie viewing has led to a steady decrease in takings at the box office and, naturally, this trend has made some studio execs edgy. Many studios have launched major anti-piracy campaigns, mostly focusing on domestic piracy committed through online file sharing. The MPAA, the good people who brought you the ratings system, have lobbied the federal government to rein in the two largest foreign markets for bootlegged entertainment, Russia and China, and they are starting to get some results.
Under pressure from the US, in January 2005 the Chinese government launched “Operation Mountain Eagle,” a joint project of the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Culture to deal with violations of intellectual property law. According to a June statement by Vice Minister of Commerce Zhang Zhigang, since the operation’s inception, more than 2,600 suspects have been detained in raids that uncovered over 100 million USD worth of pirated merchandise. Two Americans, Randolph Hobson Guthrie III and Cody Abram Thrush (and those are their real names), were charged with three Chinese accomplices last April of selling 180,000 pirated DVDs on eBay while the pair was living in Shanghai. Both will be expelled from China after serving 30-month jail terms.
The facility with which digital media is shared over the internet has given young Americans like Guthrie, Thrush, and myself, a pretty laissez-faire attitude about copyright infringement. For those of us who came of age in the heyday of Napster, the severity of the Chinese government’s response seems like a policy our government should condemn, not demand. However, while the film and music industries have had limited success in lobbying to crack down on piracy here at home, they have found a favorable ear in the White House when it comes to protecting US commercial interests abroad. The business community has decried China’s perceived tolerance of copyright infringement, and not without reason. For example, a June 2004 report issued by the Business Software Alliance estimated that 92 percent of all software sold in China was unlicensed. As China becomes a major player in the global economy, business leaders are becoming increasingly worried about the security of their position within that new market. The petitions of the film industry are being seen as a litmus test for US-China economic relations, and damn it if they don’t play by our rules.