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In China, an Expat Misses His Contraband Movies

Olympic clean-up puts pirate DVDs out to sea.

Luke T. Johnson 30 Jul 2008TheTyee.ca

Luke T. Johnson is a former Vancouver journalist now based in Beijing.

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Beijing before crackdown: inside a pirated DVD emporium.

Staring at a wall of DVD shelves, barren save for maybe 50 counterfeit Hollywood titles, I felt the scope of the Olympic clean-up in Beijing begin to hit home.

I had been walking down the sidewalk looking for a pirate DVD shop I frequent, only to find the doors shuttered, curtains drawn and, strangely, a "help wanted" sign written in Chinese and taped to the window.

From behind me, a voice. "DVD?" said a young Chinese man sitting on the sidewalk. I indicated "yes" and he took me through another door, through the labyrinth of one of Beijing's countless knockoff-goods markets -- shoes, clothes, watches, you name it -- and into a back room improvised to sell off the remaining stock of the store next door. When I asked him in my broken Mandarin about the meagre inventory, he stared at me blankly as if the answer was obvious: "Ao yun hui," he said. Olympic Games.

This poorly stocked DVD vendor is working through Beijing's latest effort to put on its best face when the world comes for a visit less than two weeks from now, by cracking down on pirated DVDs. According to a report released earlier this month in the China Press and Publishing Journal, authorities have launched a "100-day operation against pirate copies," an around-the-clock effort that should last just beyond the Paralympic Games in September.

"Strike hard against all kinds of pirate copies violating rights and against illegal publishing activities," the report reads. "Go all out to create a healthy cultural market environment for the Beijing Olympic Games."

Temporarily in hiding

But like the tricycle-pedalling recyclers and roadside snack vendors whom the government has temporarily shooed away, the DVD crackdown seems less like a clean-up and more like a sweeping under the rug.

Like the cars and factories partially banned from operation starting on July 20, no one really expects illegal DVDs to forever disappear from the fabric of urban Chinese life. Up until recently, counterfeit DVDs were ubiquitous -- whether from migrant salesmen hawking on overpasses or shift workers at brick-and-mortar emporiums, a good film has never been hard to find.

But with the government in full crackdown mode, said another vendor in the Dongsi area near the Forbidden City, "all the factories are afraid to produce any new discs right now," drying up inventories and leaving customers not in the know flustered. Still, the Dongsi vendor says she fully expects to be back in business after the hoopla has died down and the world's attention on Beijing has subsided.

Jail for selling ripped discs

Beijing had made moves against DVD pirates even before the current crackdown began with the arrest of 40-year-old Zhou Cheng, who boasted an inventory of nearly 11,000 discs at his Chaoyang-district shop when he was arrested last December. Zhou was sentenced to a year in prison and fined the equivalent of more than $1,400 in April, making him Beijing's first citizen ever to be imprisoned for intellectual property theft.

The sentence surely scared other high-profile pirates, many of whom went underground immediately upon learning of Zhou's sentence. Tom's Shop in the Lido district near the Holiday Inn made some of the biggest ripples in the pirate pool when it shut its doors in early May.

Though already technically located underground -- you have to descend a steep metal staircase to find the entrance -- Tom's was a favourite of the expatriate crowd. Tom's had everything: big blockbusters like Iron Man, tiny indies like The Puffy Chair, and almost every TV box-set imaginable, all alphabetized and selling for 10 yuan, or about a quarter of the price of a rental at Rogers. With shining customer service, top-quality product and a knowledgeable staff, it was easy to forget Tom's was a business that peddled only contraband.

Pirate nation

The Motion Picture Association of America estimates somewhere between 2.5 and three billion DVDs are sold in China each year. Of those, 90 per cent are pirates, whether they're ripped, downloaded, copied from award-season screeners, filmed with hand-helds in theatres or recorded on a DVR and burned to disc. (My copy of the third season of The Office came with several episodes bearing the Global network logo in the corner.)

Crates of bootlegs are shipped into China from around the world, from places like Japan, Europe and North America. But like the bulk of the counterfeiting done in China, much of the manufacturing and distribution of DVDs happens in the southern province of Guangdong. With such a large-scale industry thriving in plain sight, it is hard to believe the all-seeing eye of the Chinese government isn't fully aware of the booty DVD piracy brings in. Indeed, plenty of doubts remain about China's eagerness to eject such a booming and lucrative business from its still-growing economy.

China has publicly pledged its support in the global fight against intellectual property theft. The landmark sentencing of Zhou in Beijing came right on the heels of International Intellectual Property Rights Day. Earlier this year, state news agency Xinhua reported that "the national office for crackdown on pornographic and illegal publications" had shut down and confiscated seven illegal DVD production lines in Guangdong and nearby Hainan provice, reaping a total of more than 6,000 discs. A drop in the bucket perhaps, but a sign China is trying.

Wait and watch

All the same, DVD vendors in Beijing don't seem overly concerned about the current Olympic clean-up. For most, the clean-up may mean closing up shop for now, but vendors remain confident business will return to normal within a couple months. After all, it's not the first time China has launched a 100-day campaign against piracy.

Tom's, for one, seems to be riding out the crackdown with every intention of re-opening. Outside its shuttered doors sits a sign scrawled in magic marker, keeping customers abreast of the situation. "Closed for inventory, will return two weeks later," it read in English shortly upon closing in May.

Now the tone of the sign is less definite but still offers hope: "Tom's is temporary close and will be open soon!"

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