China has been swift to censor information about foreign media figures who speak out in support of the protests in Hong Kong, and that number now seems to include YouTube’s biggest creator.
The Chinese government appears to have either removed or censored some mentions, media, and discussions related to Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, from the Chinese internet after Kjellberg made a video last week criticizing the country’s treatment of political protesters in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong protests against the Chinese government began in the spring over an unpopular extradition bill. But after a harsh police response, they escalated into an ongoing series of demonstrations calling for broader change and a more democratic voting process.
In an effort to minimize the protests, China has repeatedly censored information about international public figures who have expressed support for Hong Kong’s cause, removing online mentions of those public figures and effectively blacklisting them.
Kjellberg claims Chinese censors have erased some search results for his name from popular search engines like Baidu, which is China’s equivalent to Google. Google-owned YouTube is fully blocked in China, but many Chinese internet users continue to access both YouTube and other blocked sites like Reddit through the use of VPNs — virtual private networks, which let people connect to unrestricted overseas internet networks. Third-party websites in China often repost YouTube videos and other US-based web content as well.
The Chinese government seems to have restricted access to this reposted content, at least for some China- and Hong Kong-based internet users on certain sites, according to reports from Twitter users in those regions. But access to reposted PewDiePie videos and music appears to still be available to other regional users.
It’s unclear how long this apparent censorship of PewDiePie will last; according to the official website of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which monitors censorship and other activity in the country, China is known for blocking and filtering online content “without providing the public notice, explanation, or opportunity for appeal.”
It only took memes and jokes for PewDiePie to seemingly get on China’s bad side
In a video posted on October 16, Kjellberg shared memes about the protests, as well as ones mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also commented on China’s reaction to US-based media figures who have spoken out in favor of the protests. (The segment begins at 11:22.)
“China is like that one person on Twitter who can’t take any criticism and just blocks everyone,” Kjellberg quipped in the video to his 101 million YouTube followers.
The Chinese government apparently moved quickly to censor Kjellberg’s video. In a subsequent video posted October 19, Kjellberg said that references to his YouTube channel and mentions of him in public forums had been removed from the Chinese web.
“Now, if you search anything PewDiePie-related on any Reddit-related forum in China, or YouTube-related videos, it will just be completely blank,” he said, showing screenshots of what appeared to be empty internet search results for his name on a Chinese search engine.
China can’t find about you— 紅葉-取引垢- (@Koyo_Momij) October 22, 2019
#pewdiepie #reddit Felix, you are indeed banned in China. You know, you have about 600000 fans in China. I am one of them. Most of them are reproduced through Chinese video websites, not directly following your YouTube channel. When we heard that you were banned, we were very sad pic.twitter.com/nlG0PlWjv3— BUCK的老公 (@Xxmiaomiao) October 19, 2019
“I’m laughing, but I’m sorry if you’re in China and try to watch my videos,” Kjellberg said. “That kinda sucks.”
The Chinese government maintains an elaborate system of censorship collectively known as “the Great Firewall of China,” built upon deep regulation and forced compliance of internet companies. Multiple government agencies are involved in monitoring the media and censoring published information on the internet and elsewhere.
The country’s Central Publicity Department (sometimes called the Propaganda Department) is responsible for distributing guidelines to “internet content providers” — including website owners, domain owners, and content publishers — about what they should and shouldn’t publish. The content providers are then responsible for obeying and removing any offending content.
The Ministry of Public Security is in charge of monitoring, filtering, and blocking websites, which can involve everything from manually removing “illegal and criminal information” online to blocking access to overseas domains, to physically raiding the offices of suspected offenders to access their computers. Somewhere between the jurisdictions of these two offices, there appears to be a concerted effort to minimize PewDiePie’s presence on the Chinese web.
It’s not entirely clear how well China’s alleged censorship is working, however. On Twitter, many people shared screenshots with Kjellberg revealing their success at accessing his music and videos. This confusion led some onlookers to accuse Kjellberg himself of being deliberately misleading, perhaps in order to present himself as a victim.
I just checked Baidu (the biggest search engine in the country) and typing in @pewdiepie 's name brings up articles about him. NetEase (like Spotify for China) even has his music. What gives? Is he really banned or not? pic.twitter.com/MnFeGf99YK— Connor Ferguson (@Sergeant_Ozzy) October 22, 2019
Proof that Pewdiepie is not dead in China.(QQ music) pic.twitter.com/WSbtacqekg— ART. KH. (@ARTKH8) October 22, 2019
You are NOT banned on Chinese biggest social media, Weibo. The website you’re banned on is Tieba which is government controlled and hardly anyone uses it anymore. It seems like you are just demonizing Chinese to feel good about yourself. pic.twitter.com/mlJKGuHRtH— Fred DongJie Jia (@FredJia) October 19, 2019
Probably not a great idea to take PewDiePie's self aggrandizing claims about being banned in China at face value pic.twitter.com/xyl6KdjHsg— Joe Bernstein (@Bernstein) October 21, 2019
But even if Kjellberg is misreporting the extent of the government’s censorship of him, there’s one thing he’s absolutely right about: China has targeted a series of international celebrities, public figures, and works of fiction in its attempt to suppress any and all support of the Hong Kong protests.
China has been playing whack-a-mole with protest supporters
“I knew it was going to happen,” Kjellberg said of China’s apparent reaction to his outspokenness about Hong Kong. His suspicion was based on a pattern of Chinese officials censoring public figures from around the world who expressed sympathies toward Hong Kong.
The Western media stars who have become embroiled in the political unrest are diverse. Preceding PewDiePie was the DJ artist Zedd, who said that he was “permanently banned” from the country for doing nothing more than liking a South Park tweet. (It’s unclear, however, whether Zedd means that he’s been physically banned from the country or rather that his music, or discussion of it, has been restricted on some Chinese websites.) And that followed China’s removal of South Park content and all mention of it from many Chinese websites in early October, after the show aired an episode titled “Band in China” that criticized the country. The show’s creators then tweeted a cheeky faux apology in response.
It’s perhaps why some US-based businesses with strong economic ties to China have engaged in some sanctions of their own, capitulating to Chinese political pressure to silence any support of Hong Kong. For example, game developer Blizzard, which makes popular, competitive multiplayer shooter games like Overwatch and Hearthstone, recently issued controversial suspensions to several esports professionals over one player’s support of the protests in Hong Kong. A professional Hearthstone player who voiced support for the protests during a post-game interview earlier in October was suspended for a full season and stripped of his prize money; the two esports casters who’d hosted the interview were fired.
It’s also been rough going for other businesses that have tried to sidestep conflict with the Chinese government regarding the protests. The NBA’s efforts to avoid angering the country led to outrage after it pressured a team manager to apologize for tweeting his support of protesters, a move which consequently angered many basketball fans and eventually embroiled NBA star LeBron James. And Blizzard, facing criticism from esports fans over its treatment of the pros who voiced support for the protests, subsequently walked back the lengths of its suspensions.
Chinese censorship of commentary on the Hong Kong protests is a reminder of the country’s long history of political repression
The Chinese government’s efforts to block the influence of overseas media figures and suppress political speech in its own country stretches back many years, long before the Hong Kong protests. The Tiananmen Square massacre, which occurred on June 4, 1989 in Beijing, is the most well-known and notorious example of the government’s physical suppression; however, because of the country’s extensive censorship of information about the event, it’s generally less acknowledged in China than it is globally.
In another conflict between the mostly democratized Hong Kong and its repressive government, China has been threatening, with advancing hostility over the years, to repress Hong Kong’s annual vigil for Tiananmen Square, one of the few places where resident Chinese citizens are able to remember and memorialize the victims; this year, the vigil took place amid speculation that it could be the last such vigil held, just a week before police violence escalated the Hong Kong protests.
“The situation is dire,” Hong Kong political activist Ray Wong Toi-yeung wrote in an opinion essay for the New York Times in June that both commemorated Tiananmen Square and acknowledged the growing spirit of political dissidence in his city. “[A]s the Chinese government grows more and more repressive at home and beyond, we need to remember, tap and revive the ideals and the spirit of both June 4 and [Hong Kong’s pro-democracy] Umbrella Movement ... The Chinese government keeps repressing, but people keep resisting.”
The Chinese government has also spent the past few years trying to ban memes comparing President Xi to Winnie the Pooh — a national joke that the government apparently did not find amusing. In 2015, the following meme was China’s most-censored image:
In 2018, China banned the release of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh film Christopher Robin, and briefly blocked access to HBO’s entire website after John Oliver devoted a segment to the memes on Last Week Tonight.
The government’s emphasis on deleting the meme, however, has only served to turn Winnie the Pooh himself into an unlikely resistance symbol during the 2019 protests.
China’s censorship and suppression of dissent are symptoms of the country’s deep nationalism — and they’re also tools that help foster it. Keith Richburg, a journalist and professor at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera in June that China had isolated itself so totally that “any criticism of China becomes a criticism of the Chinese people and the Chinese culture.” In other words, the government’s control of information encourages ordinary citizens to uncritically love their country, which thus makes them more likely to reject criticism. It all works to increase China’s cultural and political isolation.
Kjellberg brought up none of China’s history of censorship in his original video referencing the Hong Kong protests, which was mainly devoted to memes about the movie Joker. But he did make one important point, albeit obliquely, about the connection between China’s suppression of democratic protest and the place it holds in the global economy.
In the video, Kjellberg reminded his viewers that many US companies like Blizzard that can seem otherwise ethical are, at their core, devoted to making money above all else — even if it makes them complicit in China’s suppression of free speech.
“That’s really all they care about,” he said. “I think it’s very important to remember this, because companies might put up [an ethical] face, they might put up a rainbow [Pride] flag, and that’s good in a way, but at the end of the day, their goal is to make money. They don’t care about you. They don’t care about freedom.”