Chinese censorship: what is banned?

South Park ‘apologises’ to Beijing following censorship of the satirical cartoon series

A still from South Park’s “Band in China” episode
(Image credit: South Park)

The creators of South Park have offered a mock apology to China following reports that the US TV comedy has been banned by Beijing.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone posted the statement on Twitter after learning that all episodes, clips, reviews and references to their show have been removed from Chinese streaming and social media platforms, says The Guardian.

“We welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and hearts,” they wrote. “Long live the Communist Party!”

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The apparent ban comes after the South Park team poked fun at Chinese censorship in a recent episode titled “Band in China”. The episode, aired in the US last week, sees cartoon dad Randy Marsh arrested, imprisoned and forced into labour and re-education after travelling to the Asian superpower to grow his marijuana business, the BBC reports.

In one scene, he is forced to read aloud a message that says: “I am a proud member of the Communist Party. The party is more important than the individual.”

He later has a conversation with Winnie the Pooh and Piglet - a reference to the ban on images of Pooh introduced by China in 2017 after the fictional bear was compared with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Some people said Pooh looked like the Chinese president, so we’re illegal in China now,” says Piglet.

Randy responds: “What kind of madhouse is this?”

As well as mocking the Chinese authorities, the South Park creators’ so-called apology also refers to the US National Basketball Association (NBA), which has distanced itself from a pro-Hong Kong protest tweet sent by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets.

Morey later backtracked, saying: “I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.” Rockets player James Harden added: “We apologise. We love China.”

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Chinese media and authorities have overseen a near blackout of the Hong Kong protests, with levels of censorship reaching new highs, says the South China Morning Post.

“It’s a new record,” said Dr Fu King-wa, a Hong Kong university scholar examining the extent of censorship. “You can see that the keywords [in censored posts] such as ‘police’, ‘justice’, they are all linked to protest in Hong Kong.”–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world - and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda - try The Week magazine. Get your first six issues free–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

So just how stringent is censorship in China?

Freedom of press

China is ranked 177th out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“China’s state and privately-owned media are now under the Communist Party’s close control, while foreign reporters trying to work in China are encountering more and more obstacles in the field,” say the international non-governmental organisation. “More than 60 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives.”

Content from Chinese media is vetted by the authorities before it can be published.

Beijing has also detained number of freedom activists and human rights defenders, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody in 2017 after being refused permission to seek treatment overseas for liver cancer.

Freedom of the internet

Thousands of websites are blocked in China, including Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

And a Chinese cybersecurity law passed in 2017 obligates all internet companies operating in the country to monitor and censor users’ content, says Amnesty International.

“Under tougher internet regulations, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments on a news item that they post on a social network or messaging service, or even just for sharing content,” says RSF.

Last year, China’s main messaging service, WeChat, introduced new terms of service allowing the platform to collect personal information and pass data on its 900 million users to the government by default.

“A friend of mine just got his WeChat account blocked for three days after he had a conversation with his friend talking about China’s legal system, and reform of the legal system,” Chinese journalist Karoline Kan told the BBC in September.

Meanwhile, many websites that report on activities that the authorities want censored - for example, pro-democracy protests - have seen their journalists arrested and mistreated in prison.

Some Chinese users get around the censors by using VPNs, virtual connections that encrypt data and disguise what the user is looking at online.

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