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Tea Leaves

How video piracy shaped a generation

Cinephiles mourn crackdown on pirated foreign films

It may be hard for people outside China to understand why what appears to be justified crackdown on piracy has caused such a public outcry. A screenshot from a pirated version of the HBO fantasy TV series "Game of Thrones."

The idea of paying for movies and TV series was an alien concept when I was growing up in China at the beginning of the 21st century. For years, my friends and I watched Hollywood blockbusters, South Korean dramas and even French indie films free on obscure Chinese websites that provided downloadable high-definition videos with subtitles translated by enthusiastic Chinese fans.

It was only when I moved to Hong Kong to attend university in 2010 that I realized my teenage experience was regarded in the West as "piracy." It has taken another decade for Chinese authorities to come round to a similar view.

In February, police in Shanghai arrested 14 staff of Renren Yingshi ("Everyone's Movies and Show"), a popular website that provides largely uncensored foreign TV programs and films, on charges of suspected copyright infringement.

The police action prompted Chinese viewers to express their support and gratitude to Renren and its translators on social media. Some said the website "opened a window to the world." One friend even tried to raise money to pay bail for those arrested.

It may be hard for people outside China to understand why what appears to be justified crackdown on piracy has triggered such a public outcry. But my generation, growing up behind China's Great Firewall with limited access to high-quality media products, was intensely thankful for the existence of these pirated video sites.

While watching films in cinemas has been part of life for children in the West, it was a luxury for most Chinese in the 1990s and 2000s. In the county where I grew up near Qingdao, there was just one cinema, owned by the state, which opened only a few times a year. Domestically produced television programs were hardly appealing to adventure-seeking teenagers.

It was foreign films and TV shows on Renren and other video-sharing platforms that gave me a taste of the world outside China. I was drawn to the liberal values and rebellious spirit often advocated in the Hollywood movies, which contrasted with what the authorities were promoting at school and in the mainstream media. The life portrayed in the movies inspired me and many of my friends to pursue studies overseas.

Even after China started importing more foreign movies, few people were willing to pay because the contents were often censored by the state media regulator.

One example is the HBO fantasy TV series "Game of Thrones." Six minutes of the Season 8 premiere in 2019 were cut from the officially approved version on the video streaming platform of Tencent, the Chinese technology giant. The deleted scenes contained nudity and violence, which many fans considered crucial to the development of the plot. In contrast, an uncensored version was available online just a few hours after the global premiere, with highly accurate subtitles and annotations by a skilled and dedicated team of Chinese volunteer translators.

In addition to the enjoyment they gave, unauthorized foreign films and TV shows created some common ground between a generation of Chinese people and the rest of the world. Despite different cultural and educational backgrounds from their Western counterparts, young Chinese had the same love for film and TV characters such as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes and Marvel Universe heroes such as Iron Man and the Avengers.

I have always believed the underground "culture exchange" conducted through these pirated videos helped to smooth China's integration with the world. And its impact is still expanding. The generation born in the 1980s and 1990s has been profoundly influenced by foreign imports and is now playing an increasingly important role in driving China's future growth.

Pirated copies of "Game of Thrones" and other shows tend to have highly accurate subtitles and annotations made by skilled and dedicated Chinese volunteer translators. 

But the influence of foreign films and TV series among younger Chinese is waning. They no longer crave Hollywood films, in part because of rising nationalist sentiment. The improved quality of domestic productions is also proving attractive. China's top five films now were all made locally, while those on the top five list a decade ago were dominated by Hollywood blockbusters.

Japan is also losing its dominance in animation among Chinese fans. According to Bilibili, a Chinese video-sharing platform known for animation and comic content, viewers spent more time watching animations from China than from any other country in 2019 -- the first time Japan has been ousted from the top spot.

China's entertainment market is becoming more dependent on domestic content, while foreign products are being imported in a more controlled manner to align with the ideals of the ruling Communist Party. With the heightened crackdown on piracy, the younger generation is being shaped more by traditional Chinese cultural values endorsed by the authorities. And the audience is becoming more critical of foreign productions as a result.

These developments could lead to shrinkage in the common ground between Chinese and Westerners, hampering cross-cultural communications. Still, reliance on pirated products is not a sustainable way of bridging the cultural gap. Creators need to be rewarded so the industry can grow. The dilemma is that few viewers are willing to pay for officially approved, but censored, foreign content.

The most likely outcome is that domestically produced TV series, movies and variety shows will occupy more of people's time. Many are made and distributed by the big technology companies such as Tencent and Alibaba, which excel at drawing attention from viewers.

The era in which anonymous volunteers translated foreign movies and TV shows because of their passion for the medium has probably ended. Although they did their part in bringing the outside world closer to Chinese viewers, such people are now increasingly getting in the way of the commercial development of the domestic entertainment industry and media censorship by the authorities.

As someone who benefited from their efforts, I feel grateful that I was able to experience different cultures through pirated videos at a young age. I am glad that I am still able to access foreign media content in Hong Kong on channels such as Netflix and Apple TV, and I pay for it happily as a way of compensating the creators after years of enjoying their work for free in China. But the future looks bleak for Western film buffs on the mainland.

Nikki Sun is a staff writer in Nikkei's Hong Kong bureau.

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