China has begun a harsh new attack on pornography, threatening to impose the death penalty for those involved in the business and accusing Western countries of titillating the Chinese prurient interest as a means of subverting the Communist Party. The campaign, which has strong anti-foreign overtones, has gained force in recent days and culminated Saturday in a biting front-page editorial in the party newspaper, People's Daily.
"Hostile forces at home and abroad have never abandoned their hope of subverting the socialist system and overthrowing the Communist Party," the editorial warned. "They cannot succeed with guns and cannon, so they press a campaign of "peaceful evolution' to infiltrate their culture and way of thinking. They plot to win without firing a shot, and one of their methods is to distribute pornography and other corrupt materials."
Nothing in China is quite what it seems, and so the only thing that seems clear is that the campaign is about far more than pornography.
Hard-liners in the leadership have been pushing for greater influence, and it may be that they have chosen the nominal target of pornography as the basis for a much broader campaign to spread their world view throughout the country.
Saturday's editorial was also remarkable in that it raised the stakes of the battle against pornography, depicting it as a matter of national survival.
"This struggle is linked to the very survival or collapse of the cause of Chinese socialism, indeed to the fate of the Chinese nation and people," the editorial declared.
A Chinese university teacher said: "This is new, and very sharp. They never before have linked pornography so directly with the survival of socialism."
The latest campaign is unusual because these days scarcely any flesh appears in the magazines and videos on the marketplace.
An earlier anti-pornography campaign, begun last year, has already led to the closure of 12 percent of China's newspapers, 13 percent of periodicals devoted to the social sciences and 7.6 percent of China's publishing houses.
Such large numbers, announced last week by the official New China News Agency, suggest that the campaign was used to close publications that exposed provocative ideas as well as too much flesh.
The Communist government has always tried to ban lewd materials, but there was a fairly steady increase in the last dozen years in the availability of pornographic books, magazines and videotapes.
Most were smuggled in from Hong Kong or Taiwan. The anti-pornography campaign that began a year ago had a different flavor. That campaign was led by Li Ruihuan, a relatively reformist Politburo member who had been put in charge of ideology.
Instead of leading purges against intellectuals and cultural figures, Li chose pornography as his target _ perhaps because hard-liners could hardly object to it.
Li appears to have been in political difficulties since August, but a speech of his was used to help launch the latest campaign.