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It’s All a Blur: Chinese Shows Censor Western Brands Over Xinjiang Dispute

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HONG KONG – Viewers of some of China’s most popular online variety shows were recently greeted by an odd sight: a blur of pixels obscuring the marks on sneakers and t-shirts worn by attendees.

As far as viewers could tell, the censored dress showed no signs of profanity or indecency. Instead, the problem was with the overseas brands that made them.

Since the end of March, streaming platforms in China have been busily censoring the logos and symbols of brands such as Adidas adorning participants performing dance, singing, and stand-up comedy routines. The phenomenon followed a feud between the government and well-known international companies that said they would avoid using cotton from western China’s Xinjiang region, where authorities are accused of having launched a widespread campaign of repression against ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs.

While the anger in China against Western brands has been palpable and lingering on social media, the sight of cast members transforming into fast-moving patches of censored shoes and clothing has a rare, if unintentional, view for Chinese viewers in a heated global argument Comic relief brought. It has also exposed the unexpected political trip wires that non-political entertainment platforms face as the government continues to armed Chinese consumers in their political clashes with the West.

Most of the brands were undetectable, but some could be identified. Chinese brands didn’t seem blurry. It is not clear whether Chinese government officials specifically ordered the shows to disguise the brands. However, experts said the video streaming sites appeared to feel pressured or obliged to publicly distance themselves from Western brands amid the feud.

Ying Zhu, a media scholar based in New York and Hong Kong, suggested that the censorship was a response to both state and grassroots patriotism as the opinions of nationalist viewers become more prominent and louder.

“The pressure is both top-down and bottom-up,” said Professor Zhu. “It is not necessary for the state to issue a guideline that companies can base themselves on. The nationalist mood is high and powerful and drowns out all other voices. “

The censorship campaign can be traced back to an argument that broke out last month when Swedish clothing giant H&M was suddenly scrubbed by Chinese online shopping sites. The move came after the Communist Youth League and state news media resurfaced a statement H&M made months ago expressing concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang.

Other Western clothing brands had also said they would avoid using Xinjiang cotton, and one by one, many Chinese celebrities parted ways with them. Since then, the loyalty test seems to have expanded to include streaming shows.

Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism at the Hong Kong University of China who studies media and politics, believed the platforms were most likely censoring the brands to prevent viewers from backlashing.

“If someone is not happy with these brands on the shows, they could launch a social media campaign targeting the producers, which could attract government attention and ultimately lead to punishment,” he said via E on Thursday -Mail.

As the blurring spread to clothing brands, shows started to hiccup. The video platform iQiyi announced that it would be delaying the release of an episode of “Youth With You 3”, a reality show for aspiring pop idols. The reason was not disclosed, but internet users suspected it had something to do with Adidas, which had supplied t-shirts and sneakers that participants could wear as a kind of team uniform.

Some internet users made mocking predictions about what the upcoming episode would look like and took photoshopping images to turn the contestants vertically so that their Adidas t-shirts read “Sabiba” instead.

When the episode was streamed two days later, pixelated rectangles obscured the t-shirts and sports jackets of dozens of dancers and the distinctive triple stripes on their Adidas sneakers. Internet users happily observed that none of the shirts had been spared, except for the one candidate who had worn his shirt backwards. Many expressed their condolences to the video editors for their lost sleep and the blurring of the T-shirts.

Other shows have performed similar blurring in post-production. Participants in another reality show for entertainers, “Sisters Who Make Waves”, practiced cartwheels in sneakers that flashed into imperceptible blurring. So many shoes were erased in the stand-up comedy series “Roast” that when a group gathered on a dais, the space between the floor and its long seams seemed to merge into a mist.

A representative for Tencent Video, which hosts Roast, declined to comment on why some brands have been censored. The streaming platforms iQiyi and Mango TV, which host “Youth With You 3” and “Sisters Who Make Waves” respectively, did not respond to requests for comments. Adidas did not respond to questions asked by email.

The blurring or cropping on the screen is hardly new in China. Male pop stars’ ear lobes have been airbrushed to hide earrings that are considered too feminine. A contemporary drama with cleavage typical of the Tang Dynasty was pulled from the air in 2015 and replaced with a version that cut out much of the costumes and awkwardly enlarged the speaking heads of the actors. Football players were instructed to cover arm tattoos with long sleeves.

The on-screen censorship shows the difficult line that online video platforms, regulated by the National Radio and Television Administration, must follow.

“The fuzziness is likely the platforms’ self-censorship to be sure,” said Haifeng Huang, associate professor of political science at the University of California at Merced and scholar of authoritarianism and public opinion in China.

“But it still implies the power of the state and the nationalist part of society, which is probably the message that the audience receives: These big platforms have to censor themselves, even without being explicitly stated.”

The blurry episodes also reveal how the platforms seem willing to sacrifice the quality of the viewing experience to avoid political clashes, even if they get the buttocks of audience jokes.

“In a social setting where censorship is commonplace, people become desensitized and even treat them as a different form of entertainment,” said Professor Huang.

Albee Zhang and Joy Dong contributed to the research.

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Robert Dunfee