Three men in central China’s Henan province have been detained on suspicion of child molestation after police discovered they were distributing lewd online content involving minors.
The suspects filmed “indecent” videos of children — telling their parents they were producing “educational materials” — and sold them on their website, police in Zhengzhou posted on their Weibo microblog account on Thursday. The now-inaccessible website, known as “West Wind” in English, showed girls as young as 9 enticing users to download video content for a small fee.
In one clip, a woman is seen stripping a child to her underwear as a male voice directs her to perform certain physical acts. The girl is then instructed to lay on a bed, the camera zooming in on her chest. “I am 9 years old, from Zhengzhou,” the girl says. “I hope you can order more of my videos, and I’ll do better.” In another video, a man is seen licking a girl’s feet.
The website, which launched in September 2016, was registered under a fake internet content provider number and operated via servers located outside of China, though the majority of the site’s customers were Chinese, The Beijing News reported Thursday. In order to access the site’s content, users first had to register on one of the website’s forums and pay 20 yuan ($3) to receive an “invitation link.” They could then choose from several videos — many of which were labeled with tags such as “little girl” and “Lolita” — for anywhere from 30 yuan to 50 yuan. Last month, West Wind’s daily visits peaked at 200,000 users.
Police were able to track down the operators after a user who heard about the website on Weibo signed up as a potential customer, gathered evidence, and then tipped off the media. “Because I have a child, and my child is also very young, I felt sad while watching the videos,” the whistleblower, who goes by the username Xiao Dang on Weibo, told The Beijing News.
While police have apprehended the website owners and accused them of subjecting children to perverted acts, the owners themselves deny any wrongdoing. Wu Pengsheng, the website’s founder, told The Beijing News before he was detained that the videos weren’t pornographic in nature, and that his intention was to educate children about how to protect themselves from “bad guys.”
After facing similar allegations earlier this year, West Wind published a statement in March saying that all of the children in their videos had been “recruited through a formal process,” and that the kids’ parents — all of whom had signed contracts — were on set during filming.
However, Wu Bin, an attorney at Zhong Yin Law Firm in Shanghai, said that parents do not have the right to lease out their children for such purposes, and that subjecting children under 14 to such acts constitutes molestation. “The parents would be considered guilty of producing, disseminating, and selling pornographic articles if they were aware of the purpose for which this was being filmed,” she said. “The same applies to the website owners.”
While China does not have any specific legislation pertaining to material that exploits children, its criminal law has strict punishments for their indecent treatment.
In addition — though Interpol recommends against using the term “child pornography” because it trivializes the sexual exploitation of children by associating it with material produced by consenting adults — pornography in general is illegal in China: Producing, publishing, selling, and profiting from pornographic content are criminal offenses that carry prison time — up to a life sentence.
In recent months, authorities have been aggressively targeting hundreds of websites, aiming to cleanse the internet of anything deemed vulgar. On Thursday, popular Chinese content-creating platforms, including NetEase and iFeng, were punished for displaying pornographic content. And in the first half of 2017, Chinese media regulators shut down dozens of websites, over 91,000 live streams, and 120,000 user accounts for content that did not adhere to “core socialist values.”
Additional reporting: Fan Liya; editor: Nuala Gathercole Lam.
(Header image: Aflo-RM/VCG)