Pirates and bloggers beat China's great wall of propaganda
Government censors admit they are fighting losing battle trying to ban sensitive information
Considering that each copy of Memoirs of a Geisha found in China breaks at least two laws and defies the will of communist censors, you might think that DVDs of the banned film would have to be sold under the counter.
There is nothing secretive, however, about the pirated display of this diplomatically controversial movie. It is flying off the shelves and into millions of homes for less than £1 a copy - the latest evidence that the market rather than the authorities often controls the flow of information in China.
Pirate DVD shops might not normally be considered outposts of free expression, but they are among the many gaps in the great wall of propaganda, which is being breached by a motley crew of bloggers, copyright dodgers and curious consumers.
Following Google's decision last month to censor search results in China, much has been written about the country's restrictions on "socially unhealthy" content and its sophisticated control techniques. Yet, government censors have told the Guardian they are no longer capable of blocking all sensitive information, so they must work harder to guide its course and respond to public opinion, particularly via the internet.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a case in point. Earlier this month, the government denied approval for the release of the Hollywood epic, citing "the current political situation". Officials feared that the film - in which the Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi, plays the part of a Japanese geisha whose virginity is put up for sale in the 1930s - would become a focus of public anger towards Japan. The ban is thought to have been largely influenced by an online outcry. Many bloggers called Zhang a whore and a traitor.
"She is the most shameless Chinese woman in the world. I wonder whether she ever thought about the pain brought by the Sino-Japanese war," wrote one of the least offensive web critics.
But government censorship has only served to boost the pirate DVD business.
At a popular DVD shop in north-west Beijing, staff say they sell 60 copies of Memoirs every day, making it one of their top two moneymakers (along with Brokeback Mountain, which has also yet to win approval for release in China).
"I guess about 70% of the stuff we have is pirated," said a sales assistant. "The police come from time to time and we close until they've gone. But they come back in private and ask us to give them free DVDs. Then we open again."
The motivation is purely business, but the effect is partly political. Much of the material for sale is officially prohibited because it contradicts the government line. Among many banned items on sale is Seven Years in Tibet, in which Brad Pitt plays a character sympathetic to the Dalai Lama; Devils at the Doorstep, a film about Japanese troops in a Chinese village that won the 2000 Grand Jury prize at Cannes; and Stanley Kwan's Lan Yu, set around the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
"Censorship isn't all bad because it stimulates demand and promotes the development of the piracy business," said one radical blogger, Muzimei, whose name was once among the list of banned words on the internet, despite being used commercially to sell everything from underwear to cockroach killers. "Forbidden things are always attractive. The politicians at the top introduce policies. The people at the bottom find a way around them."
This applies not only to the film business. One of the bestselling books of the past few years is A Survey of Chinese Peasants, a searing exposé of the plight of China's vast rural population. The official version was banned in 2004, but at least 30 pirate versions have been published. The authors, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, estimate they have missed out on royalties for 8m copies.
Such is the hunger for information and debate on the web that news providers and commentators find ways to circumvent restrictions on sensitive material. Companies such as Microsoft help the authorities block sensitive words, but bloggers and forum commentators quickly introduce slang terms to get around these walls. Some use initials, others mix English and Chinese, still more add a space or exclamation mark in the middle of a sensitive word. "When the government bans something, it just makes me want to know more about it," said the blogger, Laoyang.
There are many restrictions on online chat. Controversial blogs are shut down, and chatroom moderators kick out participants who post comments likely to antagonise the Communist party.
But no restriction is entirely effective. Despite Google's self-censorship, a search for "Tiananmen Square" on its China-based search engine produces several articles and pictures of the 1989 protests on the first page of results. Part of the challenge for the authorities is volume. The number of internet users in China has surged from 620,000 in 1997 to 110 million. It is estimated that there are between 5m and 10m blogs. Censors say they have had to change tactics.
"It is becoming more difficult to block and monitor web traffic so we need to switch to guidance," said an official responsible for internet surveillance. "Strict management didn't work. It is like trying to control a flood. Guiding is more effective than blocking."
Even with an estimated 30,000 internet police, he said it was difficult to monitor bulletin boards. "The technology hasn't reached a level that will allow us to control them. And we must also consider the trend of democratisation, which cannot be stopped," he said. "China is very big. If you want to control such a large country, mere politics is not enough. You must control minds. You need to win the battle for ideas."
In this battle, Memoirs of a Geisha is a mere skirmish. Further clashes can be expected between censors and pirates, propaganda officials and bloggers, the government and the market.
At a glance
Some 95%of all DVDs sold in China are pirated, costing the film industry $280m (£160m), according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Pirate DVDs typically sell for less than £1 and you can try them out in the shop before you buy them. Most go on sale within days of general release in America.
Customs officials estimate that 67% of the fake goods seized at US and European borders originated in China, despite Beijing's seizure of 500m pirate discs in the past five years.
Computer stores in Beijing offer to install a pirate version of Microsoft software for less than £1. The US patent office estimates that more than 90% of all intellectual property sold in China is fake.
More than 45% of Chinese internet users download music on a daily basis, and 37% frequently download movies, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre. The vast majority pay nothing.
Four out of five copies of Chinese bestselling books are fake, according to the Beijing Book Distribution Research Institute. Pirated versions of My Life - the memoirs of former US president Bill Clinton - went on sale before the original and sold for 18 yuan (£1.30), 60% less than its full price in shops.