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It’s all hazy: China shows Western brands censoring Xinjiang dispute

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HONG KONG – Viewers of some of China’s most popular online variety shows were recently greeted with a curious sight: pixel blur obscuring the markings on sneakers and T-shirts worn by contestants.

As far as viewers can tell, the censored clothing showed no hint of obscenity or indecency. Instead, the problem lay with the foreign brands that made them.

Since the end of March, streaming platforms in China have diligently censored logos and symbols of brands like Adidas that adorn competitors performing dance, singing and stand-up routines. The phenomenon follows a row between the government and large international companies who have said they will avoid using cotton produced in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where authorities are accused of mounting a vast campaign of repression against ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs.

While anger in China against Western brands has been palpable and enduring on social media, the sight of performers transformed into swift drops of censored shoes and clothing provided rare comic relief, though not. intentional, to Chinese viewers in the midst of a heated global conflict. He also revealed the unexpected political triggers facing apolitical entertainment platforms as the government continues to militarize the Chinese consumer in its political disputes with the West.

Most of the marks were not discernible, but some could be identified. Chinese brands don’t seem to be blurry. It is not clear whether Chinese government officials have explicitly ordered the shows to obscure trademarks. But experts said video streaming sites apparently felt pressured or forced to publicly distance themselves from Western brands amid the feud.

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Ying Zhu, a New York and Hong Kong-based media scholar, suggested the censorship was a response to state and grassroots patriotism, especially as the views of nationalist viewers became more prominent and more prominent. strong.

“The pressure is both downward and upward,” said Professor Zhu. “It is not necessary for the state to issue a directive for companies to rally. Nationalist sentiment is high and powerful, and it drowns all other voices.

The censorship campaign can be attributed to a dispute that erupted last month, when Swedish clothing giant H&M was suddenly kicked out of Chinese online shopping sites. The move came after the Communist Youth League and state media resurfaced a statement H&M made months ago, expressing concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang.

Other Western clothing brands had also said that they would avoid using Xinjiang cotton, and one after another, many Chinese celebrities severed their ties with them. Since then, the fidelity test seems to have extended to streaming shows.

Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies media and politics, said he believes platforms are most likely censoring brands to prevent viewer reaction.

“If someone is not happy with these brands appearing on the shows, they could launch a social media campaign attacking producers, which could attract government attention and possibly lead to sanctions,” a- he said Thursday via email.

As the blur spread between clothing brands, it led to hiccups on the shows. Video platform iQiyi has announced that it will delay the release of an episode of “Youth With You 3,” a reality TV show for budding pop idols. He did not reveal the reason, but netizens speculated it had to do with Adidas, which provided t-shirts and sneakers that competitors wore as a kind of team uniform.

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Some netizens have made mocking predictions about the appearance of the upcoming episode, photoshopping footage to flip competitors vertically so their Adidas T-shirts read “Sabiba” instead.

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When the episode aired two days later, pixelated rectangles obscured the T-shirts and sports jackets of dozens of dancers and the signature three stripes of their Adidas sneakers. Netizens happily observed that none of the shirts had been spared, except for the one competitor who had worn his shirt inside out. Many condolences to the video editors for their lost sleep and their work scrambling the T-shirts.

Other shows have performed similar blur feats in post-production. Attendees on another artist-based reality show, “Sisters Who Make Waves,” practiced cartwheels in blitz sneakers in indistinguishable blurs. So many shoes were erased in the comedy series “Roast” that when a group gathered on a catwalk, the space between the floor and their long hems seemed to melt into a haze.

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

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Blurring or cropping on the screen is nothing new in China. The earlobes of male pop stars have been airbrushed to hide earrings deemed too effeminate. A period drama featuring a characteristic Tang Dynasty neckline was taken from the air in 2015, to be replaced with a version that cut out much of the costume and awkwardly zoomed in on the performers’ talking heads. Football players have been ordered to cover arm tattoos with long sleeves.

Screen censorship illustrates the difficult line that online video platforms, which are regulated by the National Radio and Television Administration, must follow.

“The vagueness is probably platforms’ self-censorship to be warned as to be cured,” said Haifeng Huang, associate professor of political science at the University of California at Merced and an expert on authoritarianism and public opinion in China.

“But it nonetheless involves the power of the state and the nationalist segment of society, which is probably also the message the public is getting: these big platforms need to censor themselves without being explicitly told.

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The fuzzy episodes also show how the platforms seem to be willing to sacrifice the quality of the viewing experience to avoid political fallout, even when they become the butt of audience jokes.

“In a social environment where censorship is prevalent, people are desensitized and even treat it as another form of entertainment,” said Prof Huang.

Albee zhang and Joy Dong contributed to the research.

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