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5 Times Chinese Cancel Culture Landed Overseas

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China’s inclination towards censorship is longstanding and well-documented — it is certainly not news to say that all media passes through stringent checks, and is ultimately subject to the whim of authority.

But 2019 was something else. The sensibilities of China’s government and citizens are starting to have a direct impact not just at home, but abroad. South Park, Swarovski, and the NBA are now all part of the conversation.

With tensions between China and the US at a high point, political censorship has re-emerged as a hot topic du jour. And as the flow of outrage spreads in both countries, so tightens China’s grip around its own media. Here are five moments that Chinese censorship affected you, the reader at home, in 2019.

1. TikTok: One App Two Systems

In 2019, TikTok has proved that it is here to stay — the uncontested superhub of dance challenges and cringey tweens has become an unlikely hit with international users. The short form video app, seemingly born from the ashes of Vine, is produced by Chinese developer Bytedance, and is called Douyin in mainland China.

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Even good ol’ US-made Facebook finds itself in a constant state of controversy, so it’s a safe bet that a rising Chinese-produced social app is going to be the subject of conversation. Reports suggested that Bytedance was censoring content to appease Beijing, but Bytedance was quick to fire back that the information in the report was outdated, and that TikTok and Douyin function in two separate ecosystems, with only the latter governed by mainland China’s media policy.

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The dynamic was brought into full relief when the TikTok videos of Feroza Aziz went viral. The 17-year-old created a series of videos which at first appeared to be beauty tutorials, before abruptly transitioning subject matter to China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. According to Aziz, this was to circumvent Chinese government censorship on the platform.

Bytedance pointed out that the videos were uploaded to the international TikTok and were therefore never a target for political censorship, but the stone had already been thrown. TikTok continues to face mounting regulatory scrutiny in the US, and it seems the platform’s battle for long-term acceptance is still being fought.

2. Hong Kong: Bigger than the Protests

Months have passed, and the Hong Kong protests continue unfatigued. It should go without saying that news of the protests has been rigorously controlled in mainland China, but let’s look at some of the ways the protests resulted in censorship, whether state-mandated or self-enforced.

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For one, international brands have been learning lessons. While not exactly censorship, per se, Apple, Coach, Versace, Givenchy, Asics, and Swarovski were all caught in the crossfire over products that listed Hong Kong as its own entity, rather than as part of mainland China. Most of those brands have since apologized, hoping to avoid the revenue-slashing fury of Chinese consumers that was felt firsthand by Dolce & Gabbana last year.

Hip hop proved to be another unexpected avenue for tension. With artists still on shaky ground from the “hip hop ban” of yesteryear, a slew of rappers took this as an opportunity to win some points with Beijing, re-posting an image from state-run People’s Daily in support of Hong Kong police. Elsewhere in the hip hop world, laughing stock CD REV dropped two separate HK-themed tracks: first, a friendly show of encouragement for HK citizens to “keep their head up”, and second, a promise to “wipe out terrorists”, with People’s Daily claiming the latter had “busted open how Chinese millennials look at the so-called democracy behind riots in Hong Kong.”

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Elsewhere, DC comics removed its own new cover image from Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child after Chinese users complained that the image of Batwoman with a Molotov cocktail too closely resembled imagery from the protests. The discussion of HK protest-driven censorship, both forced and voluntary, could last days. But let’s address the elephant in the room.

3. NBA: The Tweet that Launched a Thousand Ships

When Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted an image in support of Hong Kong’s protestors in October, he didn’t realize he was about to be at the center of one of 2019’s biggest controversies.

The tweet — with text that read “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” — sent shockwaves through mainland China, where the Rockets has been a favorite team since drafting Yao Ming in 2002. In the eyes of officials, this was the NBA publicly taking a side. Broadcasts of Rockets games were suspended, and merchandise was pulled from stores. The team was isolated, effectively shut out from the NBA’s most valuable international market.

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The NBA issued a statement that was widely viewed as spineless and lily-livered, pandering for profit rather than standing up for free speech, in a stark reminder of the influence that Chinese consumer spending holds over US interests.

What happened next? The NBA rolled out damage control. James Harden and LeBron James both came forward with placating comments, and eventually things started to resume their natural flow. But months later the NBA is still smarting from China’s rebuke, and it’s going to take some time before the two can pick up where they left off.

4. South Park: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

After the NBA blow out, as though pre-ordained, South Park did an episode challenging the influence of Chinese money on the US cultural landscape.

Episode 2 of Season 23, “Band in China”, mocked Hollywood for creating movies with China’s box office in mind. Stan, Jimmy, Kenny, and Butters attempt to film a movie that will pass for release in China, while Randy gets caught trying to sell weed.

In response, all traces of South Park were wiped from China’s internet. Episodes and clips were deleted from Chinese video site Youku, and discussion removed from social media.

This was probably expected. A few days later, Trey Parker and Matt Stone released an “apology”:

The sarcastic note didn’t do anything to help South Park’s standing in China. But in the wake of the NBA’s underwhelming statement, it ultimately won respect from the show’s fans.

5. Films: Censored Turned Global Number One

China’s film industry was in a state of upheaval in 2019.

Highly anticipated films, yanked — moments before the glitzy Festivals Cannes and Berlinale, no less — yielded considerable drama. Summer of Changsha disappeared ahead of its slated appearance at Cannes, and Zhang Yimou’s Cultural Revolution-set One Second was nowhere to be found at Berlinale.

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But the year’s biggest underdog story was definitely Better Days.

The high school bullying drama was also pulled from Berlinale for “technical reasons”, but came back to win with both audiences and critics, even topping the global box office (this is in no small part thanks to the star power of TFBoy Jackson Yee).

Now it’s getting its own TV show. Better Days‘ journey from censorship to global hit is our everyday inspiration.

Honorable Mention: Game for Peace

Let’s acknowledge that in 2019, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground was re-branded as Game for Peace, death animations replaced by peaceful surrender, and blood swapped out for colored slime.

In 2019, China’s collective voice boomed through TV, movies, and video games. In 2020, that sound might just get louder.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.