Sex is on the minds of the mainland's internet censors again. Having launched a campaign against porn websites in April, last week the authorities announced that their latest target was erotic fiction. There are at least 348 sites offering online sex stories, according to officials from the internet supervision section of the National Office of Anti-Porn and Illegal Publications. So far, eight have been shut down. Although they carry no images, it seems such sites are a corrupting influence on the 23 million mainland teenagers who regularly use the internet.
Mainland China is one of the few places to devote an arm of its government to cracking down on porn. It's possible that the officials who staff it don't have enough to do, because it is highly debatable whether online erotic fiction is a danger to the young. In the west, most major bookstores have a section for such books. The novels aren't confined to some remote top shelf, but the stores aren't besieged by sex-crazed teenagers. On the contrary, such books are most popular with women. Few teenagers or adult porn addicts can be bothered to read a book when there are far more graphic options available.
But, in the eyes of the authorities and certain members of the public, almost anything with a sexual theme is depraved. Their attitude, and that of the powers that be, is at odds with the results of the most comprehensive survey yet on Chinese attitudes to sex. Conducted by Beijing's Renmin University, 'The Sexual Activities and Relationships of Chinese People 2000-2006' canvassed 6,000 people across the mainland, from hutong housewives to senior citizens in Sichuan . It revealed changing attitudes to marriage, with more and more people admitting to multiple partners. Most telling is the fact that so many respondents were happy to talk about their sex lives to total strangers for a nominal fee of 20 yuan. That alone indicates that people are rather more relaxed about sex than some netizens would have us believe.
If the mainland is in the throes of its very own sexual revolution, then ironically it's the government that is responsible for it. The academics behind the survey cite the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979 as the beginning of the end of the idea that sex is purely about reproduction. From there, it's a logical leap to websites purveying erotic fiction.
Nor do the authorities maintain a consistent line on sexual matters. Last week, Shanghai hosted an adult-products exhibition featuring companies from over 100 countries. So far, netizens haven't been complaining about the fact that over 70 per cent of the world's sex toys are made in Guangdong. It seems it's not all right to be a prude when it gets in the way of business. Perhaps writers of erotic fiction need to launch a campaign - to convince the government of the money-spinning potential of their trade.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist