China's cat killer and the latest Net crackdown

Bruce Einhorn

I learned something new this week: China has a snuff video problem. There’s a propaganda campaign underway in China right now, with online companies pledging to keep the Net clean and purge unhealthy content from their websites. (Here's my story on this from BusinessWeek Online.) An executive from one of the companies told me that he thinks one reason for the campaign is the attention that the Chinese press has been giving to a nasty video that’s appeared on the Internet of a woman in a slinky dress crushing to death a cat with her stiletto-heeled shoes. Apparently some people find this sexually exciting. It’s not hard to find videos featuring other animals, too. Disgusting stuff, and the Chinese press has been going to town with the story of the woman: Sleuths have traced her to the eastern city of Hangzhou and she’s now called the “kitten killer of Hangzhou.” So, while the Chinese press may not be able to look into allegations of abuses against humans, at least they can help protect animals.

But this case does show how the Chinese government has limited ability to control what’s on the Chinese Internet in the age of podcasting and video blogging. The state’s censorship apparatus was set up to deal with text, not with audio and video files. The censors are trying, and the government is making companies play along, as the current campaign shows. A lot of stuff can still get through, especially if it’s not connected to the most hot-button of topics like the Falun Gong and Taiwanese independence.

And the Chinese government seems to be hard-pressed in controlling anything related to sex. I was in Shanghai yesterday and was looking through the Shanghai Daily, the city’s official English-language tabloid. In the classified section of this paper (which of course is government owned): Ads for massage services. Nothing explicitly saying that they’re advertising anything improper. There are no photos, for instance, just heart-shaped designs. But the ads do promise “cheap price, good service” and “a pleasant & unforgettable massage” “for elite business travellers [sic]!” Remember, this is in the government-owned newspaper, which should be much easier to control than the Internet. If sex makes its way even into the state-controlled print media, how is Beijing going to be able to control all the sex that's online? The government can launch as many propaganda campaigns as it wants, but don't count on them working.