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The Taylor Swift Tiananmen Square fake controversy, explained

1989 album cover

On Tuesday, shortly after Taylor Swift revealed plans to sell new merchandise in China, people began noticing something uncomfortable about the Swift-themed clothing: Much of it bore the initials "T.S." and the year 1989. Those are the artist's initials and the title of her most recent album, 1989. But T.S. could also stand for Tiananmen Square, and 1989 is the year of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of students and democracy activists.

China is known for heavily censoring even the slightest reference to Tiananmen Square. Even the date, June 4, 1989, is considered politically sensitive.

Would it be a geopolitical controversy? Would Taylor Swift's name be censored on Chinese social media? Could she be shut out of the giant Chinese market, as American musicians have been in the past for, say, associating with the Dalai Lama?

So far, the answer to all of those questions is no. None of that has actually happened. It's possible that will change, but it looks unlikely. At this point this is still a non-controversy.

Yes, this sweatshirt looked like it might cause an international incident

Taylor Swift sells this sweatshirt for $40 at her online store.

Given China's severe censorship of anything related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — so severe that many Chinese college kids have never heard of it — you can imagine how people could worry that a giant sweatshirt emblazoned with "T.S. 1989" could cause problems.

So why didn't it?

Those same letters and numbers are on Swift's album cover, which has been out since October and has not been subject to censorship. Nor are there indications that Chinese social media users have adopted the album or Swift as a symbol of subtle resistance to the censorship regime or anything like that. It appears to have taken on no political significance in China since October, so it's odd to think that T-shirts with the same letters would be controversial now.

Foreign Policy's Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian makes a great point as well: Other foreign artists who've been censored in China or barred from performing had deliberately done something politically sensitive, such as when Bjork chanted "Tibet." But any political significance of Swift's album is entirely coincidental. There's nothing subversive about it.

Chinese consumers are not treating the album or merchandise as political. Allen-Ebrahimian scans through Chinese social media and sees people discussing Taylor Swift's 1989, but only really as an album.

How we misread China

A sign urging environmental responsibility in Beijing's Tiananmen Square (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty)

A sign urging environmental responsibility in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty)

It's easy, as Americans, to look at China just through the lens of how it's different. So we are very ready to see its authoritarianism and its censorship playing out, or threatening to play out.

It is certainly true that China's government is among the most repressive on earth, and that memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre remains traumatic and sensitive. But those two facts do not explain everything about China.

It is also the case that China is filled with many millions of young people, a lot of whom are more concerned with listening to and enjoying pop music than they are with rehashing sensitive political memories — just like here in the United States.

Our tendency to reduce China to the ways in which it is different from us helps explain how the Western press got jumpier about this than China's famously hair-triggered censors did.