March 15, 2013

In China, prisoners and die-hard party members own piracy


An op-ed in The New York Times by Chinese writer Yu Hua calls attention to the ongoing question of book piracy in China—and asks whether it is really such a big problem.

For years, Hua’s books have been pirated in print and digital editions, and appeals to Chinese authorities are mostly ignored.

Combating digital and print piracy in China is supposed to be a job for “local culture and public security bureaus,” but, as Hua writes, “the culture bureaus’ inspection teams have a broad mandate, covering everything from Internet cafes and video-game emporiums to nightclubs and live arts performances; to them, pirated books are small potatoes.”

Hua tells the story of an author friend who complained directly about digital piracy to the General Administration of Press and Publication, which took an interest but failed to get any bootleg files removed from Chinese piracy websites.

Another problem is that the biggest print pirates in China are almost entirely beyond prosecution: historic Communist Party centers and prisons.

After China joined the World Trade Organization, in 2001, it began to crack down on commercial presses that printed pirated books. But the crackdown left an important loophole, as pirating simply gravitated to two locations particularly resistant to enforcement: prisons and former Communist base areas.

Prisons, being under the purview of the judiciary, are exempt from the oversight of the culture bureaus’ inspectors. Even the public security bureaus cannot readily gain entrance. These presses, staffed by inmates who get only a small allowance for their labors, have become the most profitable in China.

Old revolutionary base areas that were Communist Party strongholds before 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, likewise enjoy a special status. They are typically in remote areas of poor provinces, like Shaanxi and Jiangxi. Several years ago, a publisher told me that he had traced pirated copies of his company’s books back to a plant in a former base area. Members of his staff, along with cultural inspectors and police officers, made a long journey to the plant, but soon found themselves outnumbered by local police officers. The top county administrator also arrived on the scene. “Have you no decency?” he asked them. The presses, he said, were a cash cow for the poverty-stricken region. The visitors were forced to retreat.

In the end, Yu Hua sees a positive side to piracy in China, namely, that few people in the country can afford to buy legitimate books.

After more than 30 years of rapid economic development that made China the world’s second largest economy, there are still more than 100 million Chinese, mostly peasants, who make less than $1 a day. Food and housing prices have been rising, creating an enormous market for counterfeit items among those without money. They can’t afford genuine, guaranteed-quality products and can buy only cheap, counterfeit goods. They live surrounded by contaminated rice, adulterated milk powder, tainted vegetables, spoiled ham, unsafe toys, even fake eggs. Day after day, year after year, they consume substandard food and rely on defective supplies. Reading offers a means to improve their condition, and low-cost, pirated books are the only ones they can afford.

But it’s not just an economic issue. Hua also hints that piracy as it is practiced in China can help authors leap across the censors. His book China in Ten Words is officially banned in the country, but thanks to pirated editions it was “as accessible online here as soon as it was released in Taiwan.”



Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.