China ‘busts film and TV piracy ring’ in Renren Yingshi subtitle site raid

Phoebe Zhang
·3-min read

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai have busted an alleged piracy gang and detained 14 people suspected of pirating more than 20,000 Chinese and foreign television programmes and films, China’s official media reported.

Shanghai police said on Wednesday that the alleged criminal gang worked with Renren Yingshi which operates China’s largest subtitling site and had at least tens of millions of followers around the world.

According to Shanghai police, the suspects were detained in Shandong, Hubei and Guangxi provinces after a three-month investigation.

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“Investigations showed that the suspects set up several companies engaging in the distribution, operation and maintenance of the ‘Renren Yingshi’ mobile app and a related web portal by setting up or leasing servers in China or overseas since 2018,” the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, reported on its website on Wednesday.

The Renren Yingshi app. Photo: Weibo
The Renren Yingshi app. Photo: Weibo

People’s Daily reported that over about two years the gang gained more than 8 million users registered on the site.

Renren Yingshi did not respond to the police allegations and its website remained accessible on Wednesday. Requests for comments were not answered.

China has hundreds of subtitling sites and social media accounts similar to Renren Yingshi, which may be the biggest and longest running of them all. In the beginning, these sites were run by volunteer translators who wrote Chinese subtitles for foreign films and TV programmes. As these sites grew, their operators hired translators to generate Chinese subtitles for all kinds of content, from movies to TV dramas and cartoons.

China is one of the fastest-growing film markets in the world and a top destination for Western films. And yet piracy has flourished in part because of quotas set by the authorities limiting how many foreign films can be shown in Chinese theatres each year. In addition, China lacks a movie rating system and state censors exercise tight control over programme content, removing scenes that may be deemed politically sensitive, violent, pornographic or vulgar.

For decades, the subtitling sites have filled the void, providing the public with uncensored shows deemed “sensitive” by authorities, including LGBT shows such as Queer as Folk as well as Western blockbusters such as Game of Thrones and Disney’s Mandalorian.

They have been treading a fine line between expanding their audiences and not drawing undue attention from authorities, who would shut them down for not following the rules and launch crackdowns against copyright infringement.

Western production companies are well aware of rampant online piracy in China. In 2014, the Motion Picture Association of America blacklisted Renren Yingshi as one of the worst sources of online piracy in the world.

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Some Chinese netizens on Wednesday expressed worries that the axe might fall on Renren Yingshi following the latest crackdown.

“As a member, I’m crying in pain,” one commenter wrote.

“I’m willing to spend money on copyrighted shows, but I don’t have the chance to do that,” another wrote. “Can we ever watch shows that are original, uncensored and with reliable captions?”

Chinese authorities have launched many crackdowns against piracy over the years. In 2017, they shut down more than 2,500 websites which provided pirated streaming or downloads and removed more than 700,000 web links to unauthorised content, according to the National Copyright Administration of China.

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