Chinese entertainment companies heavily edited the Friends sitcom reunion special airing on Thursday to remove entertainers offensive to the Communist Party, such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and the South Korean boy band BTS.
Also missing from the final product, which aired in the United States via HBO Max, were all scenes featuring LGBT people or mentioning homosexuality in any way and “a seemingly innocuous classic scene in which Monica recounts how Chandler and Joey helped her overcome a severe jellyfish sting by peeing on her,” according to the American magazine Variety.
The censorship follows the removal of seven of the largest BTS fan pages previously available on Weibo, China’s largest social media outlet, on the eve of the release of their latest single, “Butter.” China has also invested in the past year in the development of a rival boy band to diminish the outstanding commercial success of the South Korean act.
The Communist Party has banned both Bieber and Lady Gaga from performing in the country for years. Observers believe Bieber earned his ban by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, a landmark honoring, among others, Japanese war criminals. Bieber later claimed he did not know what the landmark was and simply wanted a photo with the aesthetically pleasing shrine. Lady Gaga met with the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism and an anti-communist Beijing considers a threat on par with the Islamic State. The Communist Party rarely publicly clarifies such edicts.
The 1990s sitcom Friends focused on the lives of six single youths living in an apartment together in New York City. China’s state-run Global Times propaganda outlet ran an effusive homage to the program Thursday, before it aired in the country, noting the show reached enormous popularity in China because it helped young Chinese people understand the daily lives of their counterparts in America. Many Chinese people, the government newspaper claimed, learned English by watching Friends.
Three of China’s largest online broadcasters — iQiyi, Youku, and Tencent Video — broadcast the special. iQiyi is owned by Baidu, a Chinese company operating its largest search engine and the Communist Party-approved equivalent of Google. Tencent is also one of China’s wealthiest corporations and enjoys close ties with the regime. Youku is owned by Alibaba, once home to China’s richest man, Jack Ma. Ma has since lost billions in net worth and disappeared after reportedly challenging the leadership of dictator Xi Jinping. Ma has only resurfaced in video streams since the controversy and has lost control over much of Alibaba, which maintains friendly relations with the Communist Party.
The celebrities edited out of the Friends special — Justin Bieber, BTS, and Lady Gaga — were among a large number of familiar faces who joined the reunion special to discuss their most beloved moments and memories of the program.
“It is unclear whether the government had issued a censorship directive, or if streaming platforms iQiyi, Youku, and Tencent Video had done it themselves to avoid letting ‘politically sensitive’ content go through,” the BCC noted. “Many fans noticed that the censorship was not consistent across the board- iQiyi’s version had the shortest running time, at least six minutes less than the original runtime of 1hr 44min. Tencent Video’s version had cut close to five minutes of footage, while Youku censored around four minutes.”
The discrepancy suggests multiple people were responsible for separate edits of the program, rather than one government official approving a single final edit of the broadcast.
The BBC reported that some Chinese Friends fans clandestinely shared clips of the scenes edited out of the broadcasts. Variety noted, however, that Weibo — which heavily censors opinions unfavorable to the communist regime — was also flooded with support for the censorship of the special.
The Global Times‘ promotion of the Friends special in general appears to indicate that the Communist Party does not disapprove of the program itself.
“I believe that many Chinese people’s understanding of Western ‘dating culture’ came from Friends,” writer Gong Qia explained Thursday. “In addition, the various challenges that single young people had to face in the sitcom such as paying off credit cards, finding a roommate to share rent, ordering takeout, changing jobs … were all very new to audiences who were living in a very different society.”
Gong wrote that, in the post-internet world, much of America’s mainstream entertainment output has not found similar enthusiasm in China “because of excessive political correctness and because fewer works truthfully reflect U.S. society,” using the fantasy drama Game of Thrones as an example.
Rather than an attack on Friends, the censorship appears to be part of a continued campaign of erasure against “offensive” foreign personalities. BTS, South Korea’s — and arguably the world’s — most popular musical act at the moment has endured months of attacks from Chinese state media despite their extreme popularity in the country. The feud between the Communist Party and the boy band began in October when, accepting an award for “outstanding contributions” to American-Korean relations, band member RM said of the United States, “we will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”
The Global Times and other Chinese state propaganda arms condemned the remarks because they did not also express gratitude towards China. China fought against South Korea, and its ally the United States, in the Korean War, and was not relevant in any way to the Korea Society’s award to BTS that night.
The Chinese Communist Party attacked BTS once again in February after the band’s record label, Big Hit Entertainment, allegedly used a map of Asia that labeled parts of India’s border with China as India, and not as the non-existent Chinese territory of “South Tibet.”
Last week, Weibo shut down ten fan accounts on the site, seven of them related to BTS, for alleged violations including “cyberbullying and improper fundraising and voting.” The ban occurred immediately before the release of BTS’s latest single, “Butter,” which currently boasts nearly 245 million views on YouTube.