Chinese Fans Follow American TV Online — for Free Political censorship is a way of life in China. Watching pirated U.S. television shows, on the other hand, is one freedom many in China have grown used to — and increasingly, the distribution channels are moving online.
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Chinese Fans Follow American TV Online — for Free

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Chinese Fans Follow American TV Online — for Free

Chinese Fans Follow American TV Online — for Free

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The number of people connected to the Internet in China is larger than the populations of most countries, 200 million and counting. What we mostly hear is how China's government censors the Internet. That's true, but the web has proven impossible to completely control. NPR's Laura Sydell has been in China exploring the impact the Internet is having on the arts, both high and low. She'll be taking us on her journey over the next three days and joins us now. Hi Laura.

LAURA SYDELL: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now how much are, what you might call arts and culture, getting around the censors.

SYDELL: Well, they are getting around the censors in the sense that the censors aren't paying that much attention to them. So, there's a lot more freedom. People are getting music and things they couldn't have gotten before. On the other hand, they are not actually taking on topics that the sensors are terribly interested in. In fact, I would say, people are getting a lot more entertainment - both Chinese and Western.

MONTAGNE: What kinds of Western entertainment culture is finding its way into China through the Internet?

SYDELL: Well, as many people know, China has a reputation of being the land of piracy where you could always get lots of pirated DVDs of American movies and TV. But many people didn't actually go out and buy it. It meant going into the city or wherever. Now, these millions and millions of people can sit in their home and they can get it for free and they no longer have to go out into the streets. So the Internet is now creating much larger market for pirated DVDs. And you can still buy it, though, on the streets. I was out in Shanghai in this historic district which is one of many throughout the city where you can buy pirated DVDs. And I talked to one vendor I came across on the street. He was standing behind a table piled high with DVDs.

Unidentified Man (Vendor): (Chinese spoken)

SYDELL: He says his business isn't going well because everything he's selling is available online for free.

And how much if I want to buy a season of "Lost?"

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

SYDELL: Seven yuan, that's about a dollar for hours and hours of television. But that might not be able to compete with free, even in the toniest neighborhoods of Shanghai. Forty-five minutes away by cab ride is a newly minted gated community of pre-fab townhouses. Yao Jun takes me upstairs to a den where he keeps his desktop computer. He's 27-years-old, works in international trade and lives here with his parents. He's a big fan of "Lost." Less than 24 hours after the latest episode airs in the United States, he's watching it with his sister looking over his shoulder.

(Soundbite of Lost episode)

Announcer: Previously on "Lost"…

Mr. YAO JUN (Chinese fan of American television): (Through translator) We all like the beginning of the show a lot. When we hear it we get excited because it means a new episode is coming.

SYDELL: "Lost" is Yao's favorite American television show. His parents watch Chinese TV, but Chinese TV doesn't have "Lost." In fact, it doesn't really have any major American television programs, and Yao prefers American TV. He downloads it from a pirate Web site.

Mr. JUN: (Through translator) I like American culture. I'd like to live that lifestyle. I would say I prefer that kind of lifestyle. I don't like the Chinese shows. They are pretentious. They don't look real.

SYDELL: Yao only speaks a little English, but he's able to understand these programs because he downloads them with Chinese subtitles. He doesn't know exactly who does the translations. I managed to find two of them. Their screen names are Han Xian and Liang Liang. They agreed to meet me at a café on the edge of Shanghai. Han opens his laptop and shows me the file sharing website where he gets his American television programs.

How recent are you able to get the shows from like when they come out in the U.S.? How quickly can you get them?

Mr. HAN XIAN (creator of Chinese subtitles for American television): Maybe 10 minutes.

SYDELL: Ten minutes?

Mr. XIAN: Yeah, that's enough.

SYDELL: Once Han has the untranslated program he searches the internet for the English closed caption scripts. That's the raw material they use to make creative Chinese translations.

Mr. XIAN: If you like to translate into Chinese it's very easy because a lot of software can translate it. But the quality of the translation is poor. It's very low. We're not just making subtitles, we're making better subtitles.

SYDELL: And they don't just translate. They explain references to American culture and history. He shows me a translation from an episode of Heroes where it mentions Robert E. Lee.

Mr. XIAN: Check this out. Why don't you just let Robert E. Lee, right? So nobody knows this guy, what he's doing, so we just make a remark, this is a General in the Civil War, right?

SYDELL: On screen, the cultural explanations are in parentheses beside the dialog. Han works with a group of about 200 translators located all over China and they post dozens of American programs weekly, "American Idol," "Prison Break," "Gossip Girls," "Survivor," "The Moment of Truth," "Battlestar Galactica." Han says that all the translators are volunteers and they put their own money into the Web site.

Mr. XIAN: We're a non-profit organization because they think these TV shows are very outstanding. They want to let more and more people to focus on the TV shows. So to some extent I think what we do is a kind of to build a bridge for the different cultures.

SYDELL: So as Han sees it, he and his fellow translators are a not-for-profit cultural exchange organization. He doesn't think what he's doing is illegal, although he wouldn't give me his real name. In fact, if he got caught, he would face fines, but the chances of that are slim.

Wang Yafai is Deputy Director of the Beijing Municipal Copyright Bureau.

Mr. WANG YAFAI (Deputy Director of the Beijing Municipal Copyright Bureau): (Chinese Spoken)

SYDELL: Wang says the government is mostly targeting the big Web sites like Yahoo, Sohu and Sina. He acknowledges that the problem is growing fast. Wang says that the government simply doesn't have the resources to crack down on smaller pirate sites. The U.S. government is happy to help. U.S. companies are so angry that their shows are being stolen that the American Embassy in Beijing has created a special intellectual-property attaché in China, Mark Cohen. Cohen says the Chinese are starting to put more effort into protecting intellectual property on the Internet. But, he points out, that this is a country where the government aggressively censors politically sensitive information online about topics such as Tibet and Taiwan.

Mr. MARK COHEN (Special intellectual-property attaché in China): Generally, in China, the agencies that deal with content control have a superior rank to the people who deal with copyright protection or IP protection.

SYDELL: Twenty-seven year old "Lost" downloader, Yao Jun, isn't bothered by his inability to get information about Taiwan. But when asked what would happen if his government started blocking "Lost," he has a strong reaction.

Mr. JUN: (Through Translator) If they try to block our Web sites, we'll boycott all the Chinese shows. That would be a huge loss. We have the right to chose what we want to watch.

SYDELL: Yao also says something that Hollywood would be happy to hear. If he could get American TV legally, he would be willing to pay a reasonable price. And he has a message for the writers of "Lost." Can you male sure, as you write the last season for next year, that all those mysterious plot lines come together in a really cool way?

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow in our series, many Chinese musicians have given up even trying to sell their music online because piracy is so rampant, but they're looking to the Internet for others ways of making a living.

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