Young Chinese have discovered ways to circumvent official censorship for decades. Sometimes the resources were limited, such as a bag full of books and films brought back from overseas. They even transferred whole societies at times. As internet access grew, tiny groups of English-savvy millennials translated stolen American shows and films and uploaded them to the internet, allowing millions of Chinese to see what was happening outside their borders.
Getting a peek of the future will be more difficult than ever. Liang Yongping, the founder of Renren Yingshi, China’s most popular subtitling service, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison by the government last month. His offence was copyright infringement, and there’s little doubt he copied tens of thousands of films and television shows. But it was his years-long assault to the government’s information monopoly that was his real crime. Hollywood should pay attention.
For millennia, translations of foreign works have played an important role in moulding Chinese culture. There was no reason to believe that American sitcoms would have a comparable impact due to a strict censorship environment. Broadband access, on the other hand, temporarily weakened those regulations. Young Chinese not only learned about all of the stuff that their government was restricting, but they also had the ability to download it. Many people were able to translate because of obligatory English education (of varying quality).
The authorities were well aware of fansubs and the massive hole they had created in the censorship system, and they attempted to close it on an irregular basis. Fansubs, on the other hand, always rebounded back, fuelled in part by a legal clause that permitted for the sharing of copyrighted information for educational reasons, and in part by the overwhelming demand for uncensored content.