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Originally published Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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"Prison Break" catches on in China

To understand the widening digital gap between the Chinese state and its people, consider the underground success of the American TV show...

Chicago Tribune

BEIJING — To understand the widening digital gap between the Chinese state and its people, consider the underground success of the American TV show "Prison Break."

There isn't much about this Fox drama that would suggest a Chinese hit.

Shot partly at Joliet Prison in Illinois, the show is an unabashedly far-fetched escape tale, in which tattooed and brainy hero Michael Scofield engineers his own arrest and imprisonment to help spring his brother.

Chock full of flashbacks, cliffhangers and so on, "Prison Break" has been a respectable success during its two seasons on American screens.

In China, however, the show has ignited among the growing ranks of 123 million Web users. As of nearly two weeks ago, it was leading all other American programs on China's most popular underground downloading sites. A translation of its second season has received more than 2.5 million views, nearly 10 times that of "Desperate Housewives," China's long-running online favorite.

"I first saw it four or five months ago," said Li Jin, a 31-year-old ad graphic designer at a Beijing newspaper. "And then, all of a sudden, the next night everyone and every Internet forum began to discuss it. I went to buy a bootleg DVD and fell in love with it ever since."

Among the liveliest new uses of the Internet in China in recent years is the growing popularity of file-sharing sites that allow people to download, swap, translate and critique foreign movies and TV with little fear of censorship or recrimination.

The "Prison Break" phenomenon began modestly enough, slipping onto the Web roughly six months ago, posted by members of China's energetic ranks of uploaders, mostly young men and women across the country who collect and translate media that are unavailable from staid state channels and theaters.

China's Communist Party has an efficient censorship regime across a broad range of expression.

"Why is 'Prison Break' so popular in China?" asked Niu Zhaoqiang, a 20-something English translator in the port city of Qingdao. "Perhaps it's because Chinese television screens are flooded with stupid and crudely made domestic and South Korean shows."

So, what accounts for the show's unusual success here? Some fans credit a fast-paced plot line that is not quite as dizzying as "24," so there are fewer translation snafus. Others chalk it up to fans' swooning over the brooding lead actor, Wentworth Miller.

Either way, the specific appeal is less interesting than the way in which it has spread: not only without official approval but without the marketing or promotional blitz so common in a nation saturated with advertising and public relations.

As word spread this month of the show's online success, the government's increasingly antiquated radio-and-television apparatus struggled to keep pace. Two Chinese newspapers reported this month that government censors were on the verge of approving the show for broadcast on state-run channels, which would make it one of only a handful of American series to hit China's airwaves.

But the following morning, the state-run New China News Agency knocked down the rumor. China Central Television never planned to put "Prison Break" on the air.

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