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Film and TV “Piracy Ring Bust” Removes Major Source of Foreign Content from Chinese Internet

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Millions of users have been left wondering where they’ll be able to watch the latest hit shows from the US and Korea after a piracy crackdown targeted one of China’s main sites for streaming foreign video content.

With legally available TV shows and films subjected to strict controls within the country, sites that offer pirated, subtitled streams of content from the likes of Netflix and HBO have become a haven for viewers wanting to keep up with international hits and watch something a little edgier than they might find on mainstream Chinese channels. However, earlier this week it was announced that arguably the most prominent of these platforms — YYeTs.com, or Renren Yingshi — has been the subject of a probe due to alleged copyright infringement.

Shanghai Public Security Bureau said on Wednesday that they have arrested 14 people who ran the video platform on charges of intellectual property infringement after months of investigation. According to the police, the website has uploaded more than 20,000 pirated TV shows and films and made over 16 million RMB (2.5 million USD) from its 8 million registered users and via advertising on the site.

Officials also warned the public in the announcement to “pay more attention to copyright issues when publishing content on social media platforms.”

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The case has shone a light on ordinary people’s efforts to bypass China’s strict censorship apparatus. Although the country is one of the fastest-growing film markets in the world and a prized destination for Hollywood movies, only a certain number of films are allowed to be screened in China every year, while scenes that are deemed to be sensitive, violent, or vulgar are cut. 

Few overseas TV shows make it to legitimate streaming sites and rarely on a similar release schedule to the originals. In 2019, Chinese fans of Game of Thrones saw the season 8 finale blocked on Tencent Video apparently due to the political climate at the time. Subtitling sites such as YYeTs therefore allow viewers on the inside of the Great Firewall to enjoy uncensored content — from shows of the moment to classics such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory

Founded in 2003 by a Chinese Canadian student, YYeTs has been offering Chinese subtitles and resources for a range of foreign content, from movies to TV dramas, cartoons and public courses. It began as a volunteer-run endeavor, before taking membership fees and selling advertising to cover its ballooning costs. Even state media outlet People.com gave a shoutout to YYeTs back in 2011, complimenting it as a “knowledge evangelist in the digital age.” That post has since been taken down.

Not everyone was so enamored however. The Motion Picture Association of America blacklisted YYeTs as one of “the worst sources of online piracy in the world” in 2014.

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After police confirmed the case, the hashtag “YYeTs.com is under investigation for pirated videos” quickly became a top trending search on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, with many users openly wondering where they would now source their favorite shows from.

“If the wall didn’t block all the good content in the first place, who would want to watch pirated videos?” reads an upvoted comment under the topic. “If YYeTs is guilty, then everyone is.”

“Let me know your Alipay account after getting out of prison, I owe you 10 years of membership fees,” says a commenter under the last post on YYeTs’ Weibo handle, which has 7.7 million fans on the site.

Chinese authorities have instituted crackdowns on content piracy multiple times in the past. And while audiences wonder where next to turn for foreign TV shows and movies, it doesn’t seem like they’ll have to wait long until a successor to YYeTs is found. Chinese viewers won’t stop exploring new ways to enjoy censored content just yet.

Cover photo: RADII

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.