Two hugely popular Chinese websites that provided free subtitles for foreign films and TV series ceased operations on November 22. Both sites hosted platforms for special files designed to store subtitles that can then sync with a video file so that the viewer can see the subtitles while watching a show or film.
A report from China.cn.org, an official Chinese government news portal, linked the closures to criticism from the Motion Picture Association of America, the lead lobbying group for the Hollywood film industry.
But it is not entirely clear that the MPAA was behind the decision. Indeed, earlier this month, China banned websites from streaming or providing downloading services for foreign movies and TV shows without prior official approval.
Most netizens believe that the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) gave the order. A search for SARFT (广电总局) + Yyets (人人) on China's Twitter-like Weibo, yields a large number of angry comments, such as “SARFT, WTF” or “SARFT, mother Fxxker”, “SARFT, go to hell” and more.
Some speculate that the move is intended to impose a prior censorship regime over foreign TV programs by giving some online TV channels a relative monopoly over the right to broadcast the trimmed and subtitle-modified versions of programs.
For more than a decade, mainland Chinese young people have improved their English by watching American TV dramas online. Yyets.com and Shooter.cn provided Chinese-language subtitle files for pirated TV shows and movies that could be downloaded from websites outside the country, gaining millions of fans who closely followed their favorite shows. The two sites were supported by communities of volunteers of students abroad and some “subtitle groups” in China.
Yyets.com put up a statement on its website, explaining that the site is “cleaning content”:
Thank you for your love, support and accompanying us since we — a group of students studying in Canada — set up the website in 2004. We do our work with the intention of sharing and learning together. We have translated high-quality overseas film and TV programs and open courses provided by prestigious universities. We hope that it has helped you, and if it has, we have done our job.
Yyets.com, a non-profit organization, has provided free download links and Chinese subtitles of foreign films, TV shows and open courses, mainly American, for millions of viewers in mainland China for more than a decade. It grew from a subtitle translation group and became the most influential subtitle group in China.
Shooter.com has offered Chinese subtitles for foreign films and TV series for 15 years. The two sites provided subtitles so popular that even some China’s video streaming sites also used their services.
The shutdown quickly led to a backlash on China’s social media. Twitter-like Weibo has seen thousands of users complaining of censorship under a topic “Goodbye to American TV series.”
Earlier this year, regulators removed some American TV shows, including the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” from major video streaming websites like Sohu and Youku. The government said the shows were pirated or not authorized for broadcast in China.
American TV shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Breaking Bad” have found huge fan bases in China, thanks to deals with online video portals that license the programs and make them available just hours after their U.S. debuts. But such arrangements now appear to be in serious jeopardy because of stricter government screening procedures.
Starting in 2015, Chinese Internet companies that plan to carry foreign TV shows on their websites will be required to submit the entire season with subtitles to local authorities for approval. On top of the stricter screening rules, the number of foreign TV shows carried by Chinese websites cannot exceed 30 percent of the number of domestic TV shows carried the previous year.
Analysts have also suggested that Beijing may be trying to protect the interests of state broadcasters including CCTV, which have been challenged by upstart satellite and Internet content providers.
In China, domestic TV shows and films undergo a rigorous and lengthy pre- and post-filming government approval process. What is left after censorship is a proliferation of family-friendly soaps, anti-Japan dramas which have been mocked by plenty of viewers for its exaggerated plots, and costume dramas set in Imperial China. The government has been very sensitive to those TV shows able to reflect or indicate the realistic problems of society. Censors care about topics like protests, ethnic relations, violence and sexual content, under which lie ideological concerns.
Yan Feng (严锋), a literature professor with Fudan University, spoke highly of the efforts of the subtitle translation groups and got thousands of positive comments on Weibo:
Historically, there are four translation movements which deeply influenced China’s culture. Firstly, the translation of Buddhist scriptures mainly by monks Hsuan Tsang and Kumarajiva in ancient times; secondly, the translation of western culture representatively by Yan Fu and Lin Shu; thirdly, the systematic translation of western modern masterpieces in humanities and social science; fourthly, the current translation of enormous quantities of stuff related to TV series, movies and learning online by volunteer subtitle groups.
Some netizens denounced China’s censorship and received popular support. Weibo user “This or that” (@这样这样那样那样) trashed the SARFT's decision:
Question for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television: Should our billions of people keep watching these kinds of TV series: the quarrels between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, the infighting in an emperor’s harem, a strong boss falling in love with a foolish, ugly woman. How could we stand those fake looks always on screen? Under your censorship, a pile of awful TV shows have been created, but you still blame us for being picky and expect all the people’s spirits to be as poor as yours. Be self-sufficient, learn English and resist bad domestic TV series!
“Mr. Too laze to figure out a name” (@Mr懒到不想想名字) was disappointed, and so decided to leave the country:
This strengthens my belief to go abroad, fleeing the country which is following in the footsteps of North Korea’s isolation. I wish not to be caught up by the second Cultural Revolution and die for scaling the wall to watch American TV series. Nothing else could encourage me to study hard.
“Sheep much ado about nothing” (@庸人自扰的羊羊羊) believed SARFT would not be successful in their attempts:
The U.S. TV series will never say goodbye to us. The shutdown of some websites to stop the dissemination of information only suggests the close-mindedness, naïveté and arrogance of the bureaucracy in a time of information explosion. The pirated CD could have come back if the government shut down the Internet. It’s not U.S. TV shows who should be saying goodbye to us; it should be the censorship authorities and censorship. I’ll be optimistic about this.