When Bill Liang realized that popular video download and streaming service Renren Yingshi might be gone for good his heart sank.
The website, also known as YYeTs.com, was how the 24-year-old film school student was able to watch hundreds of episodes of pirated American TV shows when he was growing up in northern China.
But the site — one of China’s largest, longest-running and last-remaining destinations for pirated, subtitled foreign content — was shuttered on February 3 as part of a sweeping police clampdown on piracy. While the website is still live, none of its services work anymore.
“I was heartbroken when I found out,” Liang told CNN Business. “I feel like there is one place fewer in China through which we can expand our horizons.”
Police in Shanghai arrested 14 people they claim ran the website and app after a three-month investigation into suspected intellectual property infringement. At the time of its closure, Renren Yingshi had amassed over eight million registered users and was home to more than 20,000 pirated TV shows and movies. The site’s operators made some 16 million yuan ($2.5 million) in the past couple of years from ads, subscription fees, and selling hard drives loaded with pirated content, according to police.
Renren Yingshi did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business.
The crackdown was lauded by state media and intellectual property experts as a sign of China’s resolve to enforce copyright protection — criticism over which has dogged Beijing for years.
But it also drew a wave of backlash from fans who, like Liang, had long relied on the site for uncensored foreign content.
An outpouring of support for Renren Yingshi dominated China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform in the days after the crackdown. Some thanked the site for “opening a door for us to the world.”
The public outcry came, at least in part, because of how tightly the Chinese government restricts access to foreign content. It is one of only four countries or regions, alongside North Korea, Syria and Crimea, that doesn’t allow access to Netflix, the world’s most-popular streaming platform, for example.
China also strictly limits how many foreign films can be screened in cinemas each year. And of the content that is allowed to air in the country, much is heavily censored.
For Chinese millennials, watching foreign shows and movies is not only a favorite pastime — it’s an opportunity to learn about the world. And many of them say the roadblocks imposed by the Chinese government leave them with little choice but to turn to pirated websites, even though they are willing to pay for legitimate access to uncensored, foreign content.
While the demise of Renren Yingshi and the country’s censorship crackdown suggests the status quo might not change, the reaction to its closure and the popularity of uncensored work shows that there remains a huge appetite for such content within China.
Strict censorship rules
Founded in 2003 by a group of Chinese students in Canada, Renren Yingshi — a phrase that means “everyone’s film and TV” — was born out of a desire to spread foreign TV shows and movies more widely within China.
Young, internet-savvy Chinese were drawn to foreign content as China reformed its economy and opened up to the world. They found that such films and shows offered an edgier, more diverse alternative to the heavily censored content produced at home — as well as a way to learn about other cultures and societies.
Getting access to that kind of content through legitimate means, though, is difficult in China.
Since the early 1990s, authorities have allowed just a few dozen foreign films to be screened in the country each year — only nine of the 26 Oscar best picture winners were screened publicly in China from 1994 to 2019, for example.
International streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, have also been unable to crack the market. Netflix, for example, told shareholders in 2016 that the “regulatory environment for foreign digital content services” was “challenging” in China. A subsequent attempt to partner with a local company to distribute content failed.
The content that is allowed to air in China, meanwhile, needs to meet strict guidelines. Movies or shows with controversial themes — such as those that depict China in a bad light, portray taboo subjects like the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, or feature LGBTQ storylines — are kept out entirely. And since China lacks a film rating system, any content approved by Chinese regulators is heavily edited to remove certain scenes, such as graphic sex or violence.
When the Oscar-winning Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released in China in 2019, for example, any mention of the Queen singer’s sexuality — as well as his AIDS diagnosis — was edited out.
And the American blockbuster fantasy drama “Game of Thrones,” which built its popularity on graphic sex and violence, was censored so heavily on Chinese streaming giant Tencent Video that some viewers complained that it was turned into a staid “medieval European castle documentary.”
“There were too many ‘sensitive’ scenes deleted that I could hardly understand the plot anymore – it was so confusing,” said a fan of the show who watched on Tencent Video. The fan asked to remain anonymous because she once helped translate shows for a website that featured pirated content, and she also spoke to CNN Business about that experience.
There’s little indication that these rules may change. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, tolerance for foreign ideas and values has declined drastically. Popular Western culture is seen by Beijing as a key risk for foreign infiltration that targets Chinese youth — making such content important for the government to control.
A long history of legal issues
The sweeping restrictions have motivated fans of shows and movies that run afoul of censorship rules to subtitle them in Chinese and upload unauthorized copies online. They operate in loose networks of volunteer translators known as fansub groups.
Renren Yingshi was among the largest of these networks, exploding in popularity as American series like “Prison Break,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Gossip Girl” became smash hits in China.
Long before the latest crackdown, Renren Yingshi was running into trouble with authorities. In 2009, it was one of more than 100 Chinese websites shut down for “rectification” after the government issued rules that banned the dissemination of unapproved movies and TV shows on the Chinese internet.
At the time, Renren Yingshi vowed to give up its video downloading service, and in 2010 pivoted to translating open online courses offered by American universities. The strategy won the blessing of Chinese state media, which heralded the website as “a knowledge evangelist in the internet age.”
That love-in didn’t last. The website eventually resumed offering pirated shows, and its servers were shut down by Chinese regulators in 2014, not long after the Motion Picture Association of America included Renren Yingshi on a list of pirate sites. It eventually popped back up, and at one point even moved its servers to South Korea for a time as it continued to look for ways to stay operational.
Ultimately, Renren Yingshi’s interest in making money might have led to its downfall. While it began as a volunteer endeavor, Renren Yingshi eventually started accepting advertisements on videos, and charged members to view its content.
“According to Chinese law, if copyright infringement was conducted for the purpose of making a profit, it is very easy to constitute a crime,” said Xu Xinming, an intellectual property lawyer at Beijing Mingtai Law Firm.
Xu noted that in China, a business needs to make just a few thousand dollars in order to run afoul of copyright crime laws — well short of the millions police claim Renren Yingshi raked in.
It’s not surprising, Xu says, that Beijing would want to go so hard against a platform with such a high profile. The government has worked harder over the last decade to address infringement, especially given Western accusations that copyright abuse runs rampant in the country.
In 2020 alone, Chinese authorities shut down more than 2,800 websites and apps offering pirated content and deleted 3.2 million links, according to the most recent data available from the National Copyright Administration of China.
‘Using my love to generate power’
It’s not clear when the case may be resolved, though copyright infringement results in a punishment of up to seven years in prison, depending on the severity of the violation. Police in Shanghai did not respond to a request from CNN Business for more information on the case.
No matter what happens to Renren Yingshi, though, it leaves behind a vast legacy of cultural exchange.
“Many friends around me have grown up watching American series. They gave us a lot of extra parameters in our way of thinking,” said Lin, the Game of Thrones fan. She said she volunteered for a fansub group in high school called “Garden of Eden.” “If you’ve had so much exposure to different cultures, races and people from different backgrounds since a young age … it is easier for you to be able to see things from another perspective.”
She said she was “using my love to generate power” — a phrase commonly cited by volunteers who want to emphasize that they are motivated by their passion for the shows, and not money.
The translation work wasn’t easy, Lin said.
“Every Friday, when the latest episode came out, the timer was on,” said Lin, who translated episodes of the American supernatural teen drama “The Vampire Diaries,” as well as sitcoms “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two Broke Girls.”
Someone in the United States or Canada would record the show and send it along with English subtitles. Teams would then divide the episode into 10-minute segments and assign them to translators.
“There was a lot of stuff I needed to look up,” said Lin, adding that it took her about two hours to translate 10 minutes of video. “Sometimes the characters would tell a joke that I couldn’t get, and I had to search for it online.”
“It was difficult because I had to use [Chinese search engine] Baidu within the Great Firewall,” she said, referring to the government’s sprawling internet censorship apparatus.
The work of fansub volunteers has effectively acted as a fourth wave of “translation activity that has had a huge impact on Chinese culture,” wrote Yan Feng, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Fudan University in Shanghai, in a widely shared Weibo post on February 3. By comparison, Yan said the other three major waves included the translation of Buddhist texts in ancient China, the translation of Western literature and social science works during the late Qing dynasty, and the translation of modern works on humanities and social sciences after the Cultural Revolution.
For many Chinese millennials, fansub work is also a way to learn about the world. Many groups don’t just do translation work — they also add footnotes explaining background and context for certain dialogue to help Chinese audiences better understand historic, political or cultural references.
“I think it’s a good thing for a child to be exposed to different cultures and different ways of thinking growing up,” said Joy Tian, a 23-year-old English teacher in Beijing. She said she was struck by the individualistic values at the center of many Western series and films, having grown up in a culture that emphasizes collectivism.
“It helps promote diversity of thought,” she added.
Xu, the Beijing-based lawyer, said it is up to the public to “do some self-reflection” following the crackdown on Renren Yingshi.
“There’s no free lunch in this world, and they shouldn’t download or stream pirate films and TV shows anymore,” he said.
But Tian stressed that she’d be willing to pay for the shows if they were uncensored. After all, she has paid for licensed American shows on legitimate Chinese streaming sites before — but she couldn’t get past all of the editing.
Even Xu said that Chinese fans will likely continue to be tempted to watch pirated shows. People who watch such content and don’t profit off of it have not, traditionally, been punished in China. And if the government doesn’t ease up on its rules on content, the demand won’t go away.
“This is indeed a problem. And as the government steps up its crackdown on copyright infringement, this problem will only become more acute,” Xu said. “With pirated access cut off, [the government and companies] should compensate by broadening legal access.”