China is waking up to the problem of deepfakes. But is China ready to fight them?

The face-stitching technology allows people to digitally insert a person into a scene they were never in -- whether it’s making Obama say things he’s never said, casting Nicolas Cage as Lois Lane, or even inserting Scarlett Johansson into porn films.

Yup, that’s Nicolas Cage as Lois Lane. (Picture: Nick Cage DeepFakes/YouTube)

In the US, everyone from lawmakers to actors have criticized the technology, with the Black Widow actress saying, “The fact is that trying to protect yourself from the Internet and its depravity is basically a lost cause.”

Now China is dealing with the problem. A video that splices one of the country’s biggest actresses on to a 25-year-old TV drama is one of the top trending stories on Weibo, with the related hashtag being read over 120 million times.

The video isn’t as sinister as Johansson’s. The actress, Yang Mi, takes the place of an older actress in a period drama. Some cruelly joke that the deepfake version of Yang Mi is a better actress than the real one. But others have more serious concerns. 

One Weibo user wrote, “I remember foreign actresses speaking out against these videos on Instagram. But somehow this is gaining traction in China. I am speechless.”

The original actress is on the left, with the deepfake version of Yang Mi on the right.

Another fears the potential impact. “This technology is a little scary. If it’s applied in a bad way, it can easily ruin a person’s life.”

In the US, lawmakers are trying to tackle the problem. Last December, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse introduced the country’s first bill to criminalize the malicious creation and distribution of deepfakes -- but the bill expired before any progress was made. There is also a state bill in New York that would tackle deepfakes.

But in China, there’s no official law or ordinance in place to deal specifically with deepfakes. But that might change: State media outlet Beijing News published a video in which a Chinese lawyer said that deepfake videos could potentially infringe on a person’s right to their image and their reputation, according to Chinese laws.

Unlike the US, there is another tool available in China to handle deepfakes: Content crackdowns. Authorities have banned and removed many types of content deemed unacceptable, like rage comics or ASMR.

This doesn’t appear to be happening yet with deepfakes. The original video, posted by a Weibo user by the name of Brother Face-Swapping, has now been removed -- but plenty of copies are circulating online.

The funny thing is that Chinese state media has actually been a pioneer of digitally altering faces to say their real counterparts never said. Last year, state-run news network Xinhua unveiled two “AI synthesized anchors.” Based on real Xinhua anchors, these digital copies can read out text with accurate lip movements and facial expressions in real time.