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Big show made of destroying pirated property

Soft piano music piped in through loudspeakers and colorful banners greeted guests Friday as they filed into the courtyard of an industrial park in eastern Beijing where thousands of DVDs and books were piled high.

It gave a festive atmosphere to an event that was a public execution of sorts, organized by the National Office of Eliminating Pornography and Illegal Publications. To show that China is complying with international laws protecting intellectual property, officials held public ceremonies here and in 30 other locations around China to destroy contraband.

As the music switched from jazz to a marching anthem, officials filed onto a red-carpeted stage. In front of them were the condemned: thousands of pirated DVDs, most of them Hollywood fare, with "Raging Bull," "Kill Bill," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Jaws" visible on top. Riot police in helmets stood guard.

After a few speeches, the officials donned white rubber gloves and protective goggles and took their place behind machines resembling wood chippers. The police handed them bins filled with DVDs that the officials fed a few at a time into the machines, which with a terrific noise spit out slivers of polycarbonate plastic.

"This event is aimed at educating ordinary people and teaching to respect other people's ideas and work," said Yan Xiaohong, the deputy director of the National Copyright Administration, chatting with reporters afterward. The agency said more than 26 million illegal items would be destroyed around China, about 1.2 million in Beijing alone.

At the other end of the courtyard, a row of open-backed trucks displayed bundles of books tied up with ropes: dictionaries, cookbooks, a Chinese-translation of "The Count of Monte Cristo," some pulp novels and sex education textbooks for teenage girls.

"That's pornography. Look at the photographs," exclaimed Wei Shuting, a middle-aged woman in a trench coat, flipping through the pages of one of the books.

Wei, who works as an inspector for the Beijing Cultural Committee, said she was trained to pick out not only pornography but illegally pirated books recognizable by the low-quality paper and print. "The best thing to do," she said, "is to burn these kinds of books to send a public message educating the public."

Some announcements of Friday's events indicated that the offending books would be incinerated, but none were put to the flame in Beijing -- perhaps because of the negative connotation of book burnings, which were held during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Yan said that the paper from the books would be recycled instead "for environmental reasons."

China has been gradually cracking down on counterfeit goods and pirated videos, music and books, after years of accusations, primarily from the United States, that it was violating trade agreements by failing to protect intellectual property.

"It is a work in progress," said James Zimmerman, a Beijing lawyer and chairman emeritus of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. "These kinds of campaigns get media attention, but you need to build institutional capacity. And in end, the police can only do so much; it is a matter of political will."

Across town from where the pirated discs were being destroyed, the owner of a popular DVD shop had the latest releases on his shelves for less than $2 each, seemingly undisturbed by the latest campaign.

But the owner said that police raids were more common than in the past and that pirated DVDs were frequently confiscated.