Potency and Protest on the Chinese Internet


Sora Aoi

by Katrien Jacobs

Since its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has upheld a nationwide ban on pornography, imposing harsh punishments on those caught purchasing, producing or distributing materials deemed a violation of public morality. Meanwhile, a well-developed yet illegal internet pornography industry, DIY pornography and sex activist movements have emerged that are in constant counter-dialogue with the PRC’s “Propaganda of Impotence” (in the words of celebrity blogger Han Han).

An increasing number of netizens are being hired by the government to post patriotic messages, whilst scouting for politically sensitive and obscene content, and reporting them back to government. Netizen-spies are engaged in an extra-official surveillance of sex/porn activity, while state-issued news bulletins officially denounce all forms of sexually explicit media, both commercial and amateur. In this way, the PRC has created two fronts that seek to undermine sexual freedoms along with social change, a double-tiered reinforcement of control and sexual repression that works very well indeed. The government has successfully infiltrated most layers of social media and created a tide of hyper-voyeurism around pornography and citizen driven sexually explicit media.

Of course, in this climate it would be easier to maintain an illusion of “domestic impotence” and to displace sexual stimulation onto overseas pornography culture and its celebrities. And indeed, according to many interviews I had conducted with porn users, Chinese netizens first and foremost admit to craving contact with Japanese porn stars and project onto them a sense of perfection and liberation. For instance, the porn star Sola Aoi (sometimes called Sora Aoi) became a celebrity in mainland China through her heavy activity on Twitter and Weibo. She became known for “having brought down China’s Great Firewall” when she turned into a fervent micro-blogger on Twitter in 2010 and managed to motivate thousands of netizens to “jump the great firewall” and access the banned micro-blogging website. [i] Sola attracted about 20,000 followers on April 11, 2010, the first day she opened her Twitter account.

She began to interact with her Chinese followers and commented on various aspects of their Chinese culture and the news, such as her love for authentic Chinese cuisine, the Shanghai World Expo and the Qinghai earthquake. On April 15, she published an auto-translated open letter to her Chinese fans: “Thank you, my breast lovers in China.” On 26th April, 2010, she announced a fundraising campaign for the Qinghai Earthquake victims. She wrote that she strongly empathized with earthquake victims because she was born and raised in a country where earthquakes happen very frequently. Her message went viral on the Chinese internet and she officially launched her campaign by selling self-photographed pictures of herself. Her earthquake campaign was a huge hit in China but it was obviously also a way to promote and sell her videos. The campaign won her the uniquely Chinese nickname of “People’s Artist with both Virtues and Professional Skills”. Her Chinese fans commented that not only did she have a beautiful body, but also a beautiful soul.

But why would it be the case that a Japanese porn star is worshipped and allowed to do business on the Chinese internet, while Chinese businesses and sex workers are routinely harassed and the porn industry on the whole is still heavily persecuted? Sola Aoi is a hyper-communicative and tri-lingual overseas sex bomb who represents the capitalist New World Dream. At the same time she is appreciated by her Chinese fans as an erotic ideal type who personifies female innocence and submission. She is the sexual liberator of the Chinese internet while catering to “male-stream” fantasies of conquest, paternal care, and even, brutalization. As a porn actress she represents meekness, yet her determination to dominate the China market has made her powerful, and her sexual commodity fantasies have destabilized the routines of Internet censorship and crackdowns.

While Sola Aio has managed to establish herself in China in a very adroit manner, most sex activists and political dissidents can only occasionally undress or “go naked” to signify a personal erotic outburst, or foster collective statements against government enforced abstinence. Ai Wei Wei, one of China’s most influential artists and social commentators ocassionally uses this approach in an expression of humor, strength and determination. In one of his most famous photographs, he jumps up naked while holding a stuffed animal, the “grass mud horse” (named after a swearword cao ni ma or go f*** your mother), in front of his genitals. This animal figure is a symbol for anti-censorship forces which became famous during the protests against the proposed 2009 government policy to have the Greendam Youth Escort Filtering Software (anti-pornography filters) installed on all computers sold in the PRC. The grass mud horse then became a more wide-spread strategic icon of satire and dissent, as it was openly used by thousands of activists and artists interested in supporting pro-democracy movements.

Ai Weiwei photographs himself nude with only a ‘Grass Mud Horse’ hiding his modesty

One of the official government directives against Ai after his detainment in April 2010 accused him of being an “inferior artist” who spread “pornographic content.”[ii] He was detained at Beijing airport in April 2011 and then was held incommunicado for several months, with his whereabouts unknown even to his wife and family. He was released in June 2011 and is now under house arrest with his freedom of expression still severely limited. He was then charged for tax evasion and directed by government to immediately pay a tax bill of 15 million Renminbi (around US $ 2.6 million). As it turned out, more than half of this amount was raised by pro-Ai netizens, who have been sending donations in micro-installments. Rumors say that people even traveled to Ai’s art compound in Beijing in order to throw money over its walls.

After Ai Wei Wei and his supporters dealt with the verdict of tax evasion, how would they respond to the equally absurd accusation that the artist has been “spreading pornography”? The art work under investigation is Ai’s photograph One Tiger, Eight Breasts in which he appears naked, surrounded by four naked women. His most loyal supporters came up with another campaign “Listen Chinese Government, Nudity is not Pornography” In which they uploaded their own naked pictures, in some cases in large orchestrated groups using cut-outs of Ai’s face to cover their genitals. In this way netizens are reclaiming the naked body, acting out its ordinariness and diversity, things they are officially not allowed to do under the auspices of “spreading pornography.”

Since the odds are stacked in favor of the PRC in its war on pornography, Chinese netizens have to imaginatively and wittily counter the communist directives of the virtue of social harmony, as they are widely known amongst Chinese citizens. The adoption of well coordinated collective actions, such as those exemplified above, exhibit deep layers of cynicism that are yet playful and smart. But given the consequences, it is understandable that in the recent examples of this porn war, very few would take up the offer to partake in “sex art” and public nudity. Nevertheless, those hardy few who do are met with support by the Chinese masses. Thus we have a unique mixture of pornography and activism as the counter-propaganda of potency and protest.


[i] Ottomo, Massimo (2010) “A Field Guide to Sola Aoi, The Pornography Star who Brought Down China’s Great Firewall,” 22 April, (accessed 13 July 2011)

[ii] On April 14, 2011, Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po reported Ai Weiwei was under investigation for tax evasion, bigamy and “spreading porn”. His family denied the allegations.

About the Author:

Katrien Jacobs is Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Besides her work as a scholar, she is a media artist who investigates the role of digital networks in people’s experiences with the body, art and sexuality.