This article is part of the Free Speech Project, a collaboration between Future Tense and the Tech, Law, & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law that examines the ways technology is influencing how we think about speech.
The Friends reunion episode that aired May 27 was something of a blockbuster: It “was watched by an estimated 29% of U.S. streaming households on May 27, the first day of its release, as measured by TVision, a connected-TV analytics provider,” Variety reported.
But if you watched the special in China, you saw a slightly different version. Celebrity cameos and appearances by Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and famed K-pop group BTS were censored across Chinese platforms. Lady Gaga was added to the Chinese Communist Party’s list of banned singers following her meeting with exiled Tibetan leader Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. Justin Bieber was banned from performing in China in 2017 given his—and I quote from the official statement of the Ministry of Culture—“bad behavior.” BTS was cut out after calls for boycotts following comments they made at a Korean War memorial in their home country of South Korea.
And this is far from a new phenomenon. When China isn’t affecting how movies appear worldwide, it still censors them within the country: In 2018, Chinese moviegoers saw an edited version of Bohemian Rhapsody that cut out scenes and references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis. Even more dramatically: Because of China’s massive market, the entertainment industry has been known to defer to the CCP’s demands. Given how awful the remake of classic Cold War film Red Dawn was (a ghastly 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), I wouldn’t blame you if you never saw it. If you did, you may have found it odd that the studio chose North Korea to be the force that overwhelms the United States—a somewhat unbelievable land invasion scenario. The film was originally filmed with China as the powerful invader, but the studio decided to edit the entire movie to depict North Korean forces. The reason? Many distributors were nervous to associate themselves with the project given possible blowback from the CCP. Without uttering a single word about the film, the Chinese government managed to get a massive Hollywood studio to alter the fundamental premise of its film. While you may not be concerned about terrible ’80s film remakes, this has a chilling effect on free speech that reaches further than just Hollywood censoring their scripts: China has the power to shift the perspectives global consumers are even exposed to.
In fact, the friends of Friends are in good company. The CCP and state censors have long moved to control appearances—both in media and in-person—in China by global celebrities. Many stars have attempted to apologize to preserve their appearance in the Southeast Asian nation—some with success, some without.
Brad Pitt was banned from China for nearly 20 years for his role in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, portrayed Chinese governance negatively. Sharon Stone was banned for comments that insinuated that deadly earthquakes in China during 2009 were “karma” for its treatment of Tibet. (She later apologized.) A Winnie the Pooh film was banned from the country because of widespread memes suggesting that President Xi Jinping looks an awful lot like the most famous resident of the Hundred Acre Wood. Even Bon Jovi got the axe from the country because the Dalai Lama appeared in the concert backdrop in a 2010 show in Taiwan.
Here are some other tales of celebrities that China wants to shush.
The WWE wrestler and actor recently came under fire from the Chinese mainland after he referred to Taiwan as the first “country” to see his new movie F9 (because eight Fast & Furious movies were not enough). This comment angered officials, who saw it as a rebuke of their “One China” policy, and the wrestler quickly capitulated. Cena posted an apology in Mandarin on Chinese social network Weibo, where he repeated his “love and respect” for China and its people.
The then-general manager of the Houston Rockets came under immense scrutiny for a tweet in October 2019. Morey posted “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” amid protests against Chinese crackdowns on democratic rule in the former British colony. In response, the Chinese government began pressuring the NBA to fire Morey outright and sparked a partial boycott of the league. Even worse, LeBron James—who is extremely popular in China—claimed that Morey was not educated on the situation at hand. (Today, Morey is the president of basketball operations for the 76ers.)
Tilman Fertitta to ESPN: “I have the best general manager in the league. Everything is fine with Daryl and me. We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that [the organization] has no [political] position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.” https://t.co/tS15GIOpMh
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon)
Perry similarly sparked controversy in China for her appearance of support for the people of Taiwan. During a 2015 concert in the city of Taipei, Perry wore a dress sporting a large sunflower—which happens to be a symbol of Taiwanese anti-China activists. She was also pictured with a Taiwanese flag draped over her shoulders as a quasi-cape. While attempting to receive a visa in 2017 to play at the Shanghai Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, Perry was denied and informed that she had been banned indefinitely from the country.
Two of Gomez’s shows in 2016—originally set for Guangzhou and Shanghai—were canceled after authorities informed her that she was banned from the country. The ban stems from a picture she posted on social media with the Dalai Lama in 2014 from a philanthropic appearance he made in Vancouver. The Chinese government has long-sought to limit international ties with the Dalai Lama following its 1950s invasion of Tibet and has inserted itself into the succession process against the wishes of Tibetan monks.
During a 2008 concert, Icelandic performer Björk was banned for threats to “national sovereignty” after she yelled out “Tibet! Tibet” during a Shanghai performance of her song “Declare Independence.” Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Ministry of Culture moved swiftly to condemn her comments as illegal threats meant to encourage ethnic hatred.
Modeling phenom Gigi Hadid was banned from attending the Shanghai VS Fashion Show in late 2017 following a video that surfaced of her holding up a Buddha cookie and squinting her eyes. While an extremely cultural insensitive move (if not overtly racist), instead of engaging in discourse the CCP saw it best to ban her from the entire country.
I’m so bummed I won’t be able to make it to China this year. Love my VS family, and will be with all my girls in spirit!! Can’t wait to tune in with everyone to see the beautiful show I know it will be, and already can’t wait for next year! 🙂 x
— Gigi Hadid (@GiGiHadid)
Harrison Ford and Martin Scorsese
Way back in 1996, the Chinese government had already started banning Western stars viewed as counter to its national goals. Following the Disney film Kundun—which focused on the exiled Dalai Lama—both Harrison Ford and director Martin Scorsese were “blacklisted” from the country. While Chinese officials attempted to deny the existence of a blacklist at the time, they have become far more open with their bans in recent years.
Rap legend Jay-Z was denied a request to perform in Shanghai because the Ministry of Culture determined his lyrics were too vulgar and suggestive for the country to hear. However, it seems these bans for vulgarity are applied rather haphazardly—as other suggestive acts like the Black Eyed Peas played in the country in 2006 in the lead-up to Jay-Z’s proposed China debut.
And the list goes on.
Heck, if I was even a Z-list celebrity I might get banned from the country just for writing this article.