BOSTON — Is China's uneasy relationship with internet porn ending?
That question spread quickly on Twitter and across the web this week after word leaked that several popular porn sites were now available in China, the world's largest internet market.
Since late May, 420 million Chinese web users have had access to YouPorn, PornHub, the Chinese site Xingba ("Sex Bar") and others, according to bloggers inside China.
"This has never been done with the [Chinese] internet before," Beijing internet analyst Zhao Jing, who goes by the English name Michael Anti, told the Associated Press.
Smirk if you must. And, yes, porn can feel like an inconsequential topic in a serious and complex world.
But this latest development says a lot about the new China.
It also raises a number of important issues that go far beyond a little laptop titillation.
First, a bit of background. Internet regulation represents a serious digital dilemma for Chinese authorities; namely, how to use the benefits of the internet — openness, efficiency, communication and the like — to promote economic growth, while maintaining political control over Chinese society.
To strike this balance Bejing has created the world's most sophisticated internet police force: 30,000 people who monitor sensitive content like mentions of the spiritutal movement Falun Gong, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Dalai Lama and — until recently it seems — internet porn.
Clearly, these prohibitions haven't slowed internet growth or use in China: 420 million people is more than the entire population of any other country in the world, save India.
But China's digital dilemma can create problems ranging from rocky relations with foreign firms (see the Google back-and-forth episode), to confusing or ineffective policies like last year's Green Dam/Youth Escort software filter that was to be installed on every new computer sold in China. That plan was eventually scrapped amid general relief.
So what's behind this apparent loosening of porn regulations?
Nobody knows for sure as the Chinese government isn't talking. It could be a shift in policy. Or it could be a mistake.
But there's been plenty of speculation on the blogosphere.
"Maybe they are thinking that if internet users have some porn to look at, then they won't pay so much attention to political matters," Anti said.
The biggest political worry would be the Chinese economy, which has shown signs of recent weakness: China's gross domestic product slowed from 11.9 percent to 10.3 percent in the second quarter. Worries remain over the health of its banks. Steel prices in China are falling amid slowing demand. Its property bubble is a constant concern.
So the argument that internet porn is being used to channel attention from potential economic and political problems is an intriguing one.
After all, porn has become the new opiate of the masses — from the United States, to Brazil, Pakistan and, yes, China (a survey released this week ranked those four countries as the biggest consumers of the stuff).
From the perspective of a nervous regime that might be concerned about its unhappy masses, internet porn represents a solitary distraction that doesn't threaten the current political structure.
A more plausible explanation, though, may be societal change. As China modernizes, attitudes about sex are quickly evolving. The emergence of a middle class has created a sexual revolution in the country. This is particularly true among its younger citizens, who make up a majority of internet users.
According to the China Daily, the country now has an estimated 200,000 sex shops that generate nearly $1.5 billion in annual sales. Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have developed thriving gay and lesbian scenes. Meanwhile, a Fudan University poll in June showed that 70 percent of Shanghai university graduates think one-night stands aren't immoral. More than half said they could understand if a girl became a rich man's lover, according to the People's Daily. Those are big changes from the attitudes of their pre-economic reform parents.
Seen in this context, the opening of porn sites in China shouldn't come as a surprise.
It could instead be a mature, reasoned and measured government response to China's rapidly changing social, economic and political situation. And a much welcome one.
As Mao once said: "Learn from the masses. Then teach them."
That Chinese saying may end up being true for porn, too.