The Edison Chen photo scandal involved the illegal distribution over the Internet of intimate and private photographs of Hong Kong actor Edison Chen with various women, including actresses Gillian Chung, Bobo Chan, Rachel Ngan and Cecilia Cheung. The scandal shook the Hong Kong entertainment industry in early 2008 and received high profile media attention locally and around the world. Many local newspapers headlined the story consecutively during the first fortnight of February 2008, relegating coverage of the 2008 Chinese winter storms to secondary prominence during Chinese New Year.
The Hong Kong police enlisted the assistance of Interpol to stem the spread of the photographs. Ten people were arrested in connection with the distribution of the photographs. A computer technician was convicted of three counts of obtaining access to a computer with dishonest intent, and received a custodial sentence of eight and a half months.
The police crackdown raised questions over violations of the privacy and free speech rights of Internet users. The manner in which actors, their management, and the police handled the situation, in turn, made those arrested into heroes for some Internet users.
Chen admitted being the author and copyright owner of most of the photographs, and stated that the private photographs had been stolen and published illegally without his consent. He made a public apology, especially to the women involved, and also announced that he would "step away indefinitely" from the Hong Kong entertainment industry.
In November 2006, Chen purchased a pink PowerBook personal computer, a photograph of which he published on his blog. It may have come from eLite Multimedia, a computer shop in Hong Kong's Central district. According to the police, Chen's "Cotton-candy Mac" computer was sent in for repairs, and an estimated 1,300 intimate photographs of Chen and numerous female celebrities may have been accessed and secretly copied by one or more of the shop's employees. According to Chen, the image files were deleted before the computer was taken in for repairs.
Chen's photographs were reportedly made some time between 2003 and 2006. One close friend indicated that Chen liked to take photographs during intimate moments with his sexual partners, of whom 14 were celebrities, and privately showed these to a select group of close friends.
The first photograph, depicting Chen and Gillian Chung, was posted on the Hong Kong Discuss Forum at approximately 8:30 p.m. on 27 January 2008. Although the original post was deleted after a few hours, some visitors forwarded the image to other major forums in Hong Kong such as Uwants and HKGolden. Chung's management agency, Emperor Entertainment Group (EEG), immediately challenged its authenticity, and filed a police report.
The following day, a second explicit photograph of Chen, with another starlet, appeared on the Internet. After an emergency meeting that evening at EEG, the company declared that it would pursue the publisher of the image for this "irresponsible" and "malicious act". Gillian Chung was reportedly very distraught, had taken a leave of absence, and would not comment on the matter. Shaped by the denials, the initial media consensus was that the photographs were hoaxes. Nevertheless, the story became the headline of major local Hong Kong newspapers.
At 12:30 p.m. on 29 January, a higher resolution photograph appeared on the Internet. Journals noted the uncanny resemblance to Cecilia Cheung, especially her distinctive tattoo set. The photographs became the talk of the town, and local discussion forums became saturated. A low-resolution sequence (photos 4 to 7) of Chen with Chung appeared at 3 p.m.; a nude photograph of Cecilia Cheung appeared at 6 p.m. Journals established with known video footage that the photographs were taken inside Chen's residence. Nevertheless, Cheung's solicitors denounced the upload as a "malicious, immoral and irresponsible act".
China News Service (CNS) reported that more than 100 police officers had been sent to investigate the case,although Assistant Commissioner of Police (Crime) Vincent Wong Fook-chuen later declared that the investigating team consisted of 19 officers from the Commercial Crime Bureau. The police and photographic experts, who examined the images involving the first three female celebrities, said the photos were unlikely to have been composites.
The Hong Kong police moved on all Internet service providers to stamp out all local traces of the as yet unclassified "offensive material". The police met with more than 200 people responsible for major Hong Kong Web sites and BBS communities to urge them to delete the pictures on appearance "as they have the responsibility to stop crimes". Related discussion threads were progressively deleted. The police ordered several locally registered web sites and BBS management firms to submit information about their clients, and had retrieved the IP addresses of more than 30 Internet users who allegedly posted photographs.
After the exposure of the eighth photograph, Chen quietly left Hong Kong and flew to Boston to be with his girlfriend Vincy Yeung (楊永晴). On 4 February 2008, Chen released a 90-second video clip in English in which he apologised to those who may have been affected by the posting of photographs, without commenting on the authenticity of the photos.
On 6 February, a forum user leaked hundreds more photographs in defiance of the police. The uploader, dubbed by the public as "Kira", with reference to the protagonist in the manga "Death Note", stated he was not in Hong Kong, and promised to release a 32-minute video the next day. Two days later, three pictures of a young woman showering appeared on the Internet. The subject was rapidly identified as 18-year-old Vincy Yeung, Chen's girlfriend and niece of Albert Yeung, chairman of EEG. The police confirmed these three images were part of the batch of 1,300 photographs known to them. Having said there were only six participants, the police explained the appearance of a seventh, saying that her photographs had been erroneously grouped with one of the other females.
Gillian Chung was the first starlet to make a public appearance. After greeting fans at a New Year celebration on 11 February 2008, she delivered a brief statement to the press in which she apologised for the hurt caused to those around her by her silliness and naivety, saying that she "had now grown up". Emperor sought closure by stating that neither it nor any of its artists would be making any further statement about the incident. The press conference drew mixed response from the media and the public – some praised her courage in facing the public while others complained of her insincerity and her refusal to face the issue squarely. An Apple Daily commentary was particularly scathing about the hypocrisy of Chung and of her management company for only obliquely hinting at her "licentiousness". On 14 February, two new nude photographs surfaced. One photograph featured an unidentified woman fellating Chen, and another showed Rachel Ngan lying on a bed.
Chen returned to Hong Kong on 21 February, and held a press conference during which he asked for forgiveness and announced his departure from the Hong Kong entertainment industry "indefinitely". Chen confirmed that the photographs belonged to him and were private, and stated that they were obtained without his consent and then made public. His lawyer emphasised that reproduction whether in whole or in part would constitute copyright infringement.
On 26 February, as Chen entered his sixth consecutive day of police questioning, Sing Tao Daily revealed that a cache of computer disks and other storage devices containing in excess of 10,000 images were found from the search of Chen's residence. Police leaked news that five "new" celebrities had been identified by police, who gave only cryptic descriptions. Investigations were apparently hampered by Chen's caution, and by the lack of cooperation of the "new" female victims: some had left town, and one had already publicly denied her involvement. While the police suspected hidden motives, Chen denied that he had been blackmailed.
On 31 January 2008, an unemployed man identified as 29-year-old Chung Yik-tin (鍾亦天) was arrested for allegedly uploading one image; 12 pictures were found on his computer. The next day he was arraigned but denied bail because he was suspected of blackmailing the actor and actresses. The case would reconvene eight weeks later, and Chung Yik-tin was destined to spend Chinese New Year in detention. After investigating the connection between the suspect and artists, the police were satisfied that blackmail was not involved. Following the furore at the police that the photograph allegedly posted by Chung was later classified as "indecent", Chung was unconditionally released from detention on 15 February, and charges against him were dropped.
On 2 February, police arrested four men and two women in connection with the distribution of the photographs. Of the six, three men and a woman were released on HK$20,000 bail and ordered to report back to the police in eight weeks. The police revealed that during 2007, Edison Chen brought his computer to a shop for repairs. Employees who discovered over 1,300 intimate photographs may have secretly copied these files.
On 4 February, a 29-year-old man became the eighth person to be detained in connection with the Internet posting of nude photos. On the same day, 23-year-old Sze Ho-Chun (史可雋) was arrested and charged with "dishonest use of computers with criminal intent", which has a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment. The man appeared in Eastern Court on 5 February, where he denied the charge and was released on $50,000 bail. The case was adjourned to 22 February.
Assistant Commissioner Wong said the source of the pictures had been traced, but he would not confirm reports stating that they had been taken from Chen's computer. He added that the authenticity of the photographs was no longer in question. Wong also said of the six women found in the photographs, four were local celebrities and two were unknown to the police. None of the women were named. Wong was certain that no overseas artists were involved. He said that it was not a crime to transfer the pictures to friends, but those who had posted the images to Internet web pages could be in breach of the Hong Kong law. His statement has prompted some people to solicit for or send the picture files to their "friends" en masse by email.
On 5 February, as another of the suspects was released on $50,000 bail, six more related photographs surfaced on the Internet. In the early hours on Chinese New Year's Eve, several hundred more photographs appeared on the Internet; there were two new faces.
The police arrested a tenth person in connection with the case on 10 February. Kwok Chun-wai, a 24-year-old logistics clerk, was charged with distribution of pornography. He had allegedly posted the link to a local discussion forum after uploading a compressed file containing over a hundred images to a site in Cyprus. Kwok was released on $10,000 bail and was required to report to the police three times a week. He entered a guilty plea to three counts of publishing an obscene article in July. On 24 July 2008, he was sentenced to two months in prison, suspended for two years.
Web sites on the mainland are usually more sensitive to political issues than to pornography, and for several weeks major sites such as Baidu permitted the images to be disseminated. During this time, photographs were also posted on the popular mainland China chat room, Tianya Club, and had been viewed nearly 20 million times a day. Around 20 February however, mainland sites took action to prevent access to the photos.
A crackdown began in mainland China on the manufacturing, selling and spreading the CD-ROMs of the celebrity photos, which sold "like hotcakes". Police arrested 10 people suspected of the production in Shenzhen.Police in Beijing announced on 21 February that it would act to stop the circulation of the photographs. Officials declared that showing the photos to friends or posting them on blogs or online forums, even without profit motive, could be punishable by detention for up to 15 days; transmission of more than 200 of the photos as a package on the internet would be met with criminal prosecution.
A Taiwanese man aged 24, Huang Wei-lun, was arrested in Taipei county on suspicion of posting the explicit photos and videos in his blog and instructing net surfers how to download the images. Police in Kaohsiung warned of the two-year penalty for selling pornographic CDs, and raided shops and arcades where discs of Edison Chen's photographs have been selling slowly, for TWD100. One observer remarked that young people did not buy discs as they can get the photographs easily from the internet
On 2 February, Commissioner of Police Tang King Shing warned that anyone with the pictures on their computer could be in breach of the law, even if there was no record of distribution. This led to the immediate objection of lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who led a protest of about two dozen people outside police headquarters in Wan Chai. They accused the police of sowing confusion and creating an atmosphere of "white terror" among netizens. Leung urged Commissioner Tang to clarify whether merely keeping the pictures violated the law. Some opinions disagree on distributing the photos.
 Selective application of the law
The police's selectiveness in this case, as compared with previous cases of pornography distribution on the Internet, was also the focus of public attention. Regina Ip said that police would commonly apply the law selectively, citing the difficulty of taking action against every person who had overstayed in Hong Kong. Similarly, the local Chairman of the Internet Society said that it would not be practical for the police to ticket every traffic offender.
The denial of bail for Chung Yik-tin sparked controversy over the subjective application of the law. Legislator Ronny Tong accused the police of humiliating a suspect by their excessively hasty actions.
Commentary in the newspaper Ming Pao also remarked on the widespread outrage about the perceived selective application of legal principles – that a person charged with an apparently minor offense being denied bail whilst two others, unnamed, with allegedly heavier involvement in the spread of the photographs were allowed out on bail. A commentary in Apple Daily decried the "clear intimidation of netizens" by the police, and referred to the "hypocrisy in law enforcement" for arresting people without bringing the alleged main source and victim (Chen) for interrogation.
Definition of "obscenity"
While publishing an "obscene" (淫褻) article carries a maximum sentence of 3 years, an "indecent" (不雅) article only carries a maximum sentence of 12 months. Ming Pao revealed on 14 February that it had received interim classification from the Obscene Articles Tribunal (OAT) relating to five photographs it had submitted for opinion. Three of these photographs were classified as "indecent" while two were considered "obscene". The only photograph which was in circulation on 27 January, allegedly posted by Chung Yik-tin, was "indecent". Thus, the journal raised the question that Chung may have been charged with a wrong offense. Also, the law applies only after OAT's classification. Since the police arrested and charged Chung before classification, some viewed the arrest as unlawful. An Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong questioned whether an amended charge of "Publishing an Indecent Article" applied to photographs uploaded onto the Internet.