In the new China, sex can still be the stuff of scandal

An argument is raging in China over images that have been released on the internet showing Edison Chen, one of Hong Kong's most famous celebrities, engaging in sexual activities with eight of the territory's top actresses and singers. Hong Kong police have arrested at least eight people in relation to the images, illegally copied from Chen's laptop. The controversy has surrounded the scale of the crackdown, and the wider question of privacy and censorship on the internet and the media at large.

I am no great internet user but I have been following this Hong Kong news and the flood of responses in the Chinese-language media. Before I left China, in 1997, I became acutely aware that there are four major social phenomena that are thought of as "human needs" in the western world but that have never really been accepted as part of Chinese daily life. These are freedom of religious belief, a free media, an independent legal system, and a "sex press".

The control of Chinese media is well known. It was a nightmare when I was a radio presenter in China in the 1980s. You never knew what could be said until someone knocked on your door with a "leader's order" - or even a punishment. From what my Chinese friends tell me, little has changed. There is no clear standard and little freedom for the "central media", despite two decades of slow improvement. For the new Chinese generation, the internet has become the platform for free public communication, a very big part of which involves the exchange of views on sex.

Anything relating to sex has always been difficult in China. Discussion of these issues was forbidden for thousands of years. A single woman and man sitting together might be arrested as "sexual hooligans", and at the very least would cause their families to lose face. Before China's "opening up" policies of the 1980s, you would have been jailed for anything from three months to three years for talking about sex in public. Now? It is possible for a young woman in a city to have sexual relationships with as many men as she wants - as long as she doesn't mind her family's nagging and friends' gossip. But not in poor rural areas. There, as a woman, she might pay with her life for being touched by a man, even if just his hand contacts her face.

I return to China often, and have always been surprised by the number and speed of the changes in young urban China, including perceptions of sexual relationships. Chinese society's response to the political and cultural convulsion of the Hong Kong sex scandal offers a telling test case of how far those perceptions - this newborn freedom of the sex press - have moved.

More than half the hundreds and thousands of Chinese views on the Edison Chen scandal have expressed anger at "the disgusting images", "privacy invasion" and "destruction of China's culture rules". Many hoped the Hong Kong government could put a stop to the circulation of the images with the threat of heavy punishment; only a very few spoke up for the freedom of media and democracy and argued against media control and traditional taboos.

In Chinese, the style of writing and noms de plume employed in chatrooms offer clues about the authors' ages and which part of the political-cultural spectrum they come from. Most government supporters' names and writing sounded as if they came from well-educated or wealthy families, probably born before the 1980s. Those who opposed the government's position, by contrast, appeared to be much younger, with their language influenced by computers and western visual culture.

I also looked at some English views on the scandal and what it says about "China". My understanding of nuance in English prevents me from making a close analysis, but the difference between how things are seen with English and Chinese eyes is clear. The biggest mistake is to imagine that there is such a thing as a homogeneous Chinese perspective.

We are living in a misguidedly over-simplified world. Many Chinese local governments are still offering their best locations to McDonald's, because they are told McDonald's is the finest cuisine of the west. At the same time many westerners think sweet and sour pork is the best Chinese dish, yet most Chinese won't touch it. As for sex, many Chinese women used to think British men never talk about it, because the translated books they read contained nothing of the subject. Many western men, on the other hand, have considered Chinese women uninterested in sex, oblivious to the fact that they had married women brought up in the old China, when the idea of enjoying sex was very, very bad behaviour.

In Shanghai on Valentine's Day you would have seen many couples dining by candlelight - but not so their parents, and not in villages an hour's drive away. China is on a long march to develop the legal rights and freedoms of a "romantic" society. But westerners also need to climb a Great Wall of understanding, and remember China is made up of many ways of living.

Xinran, the author of The Good Women of China, Sky Burial and Miss Chopsticks.