HONG KONG — Viewers of some of China’s most popular online variety shows were recently greeted by a curious sight: a blur of pixels obscuring the brands on sneakers and T-shirts worn by contestants.
As far as viewers could tell, the apparel showed no hints of obscenity or indecency. Instead, the problem lay with the foreign brands that made them.
Since late March, streaming platforms in China have diligently censored the logos and symbols of brands like Adidas that adorn items worn by contestants performing dance, singing and standup-comedy routines. The phenomenon followed a feud between the government and big-name international companies that said they would avoid using cotton produced in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the authorities are accused of mounting a wide-reaching campaign of repression against ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs.
While the anger in China against Western brands has been palpable and enduring on social media, the sight of performers turned into rapidly moving blobs of censored shoes and clothing has provided rare, albeit unintentional, comic relief for Chinese viewers amid a heated global dispute. It has also exposed the unexpected political tripwires confronting apolitical entertainment platforms as the government continues to weaponize the Chinese consumer in its political disputes with the West.
Most of the brands were not discernible, but some could be identified. Chinese brands did not appear to be blurred. It’s not clear if Chinese government officials explicitly ordered the shows to obscure the brands. But experts said that the video streaming sites apparently felt pressured or obliged to publicly distance themselves from Western brands amid the feud.
Ying Zhu, a media professor at the City University of New York and Hong Kong Baptist University, suggested that the censorship was a response to both state and grass-roots patriotism, especially as the opinions of nationalistic viewers become more prominent and loud.
“The pressure is both top down and bottom up,” said Professor Zhu. “There is no need for the state to issue a directive for the companies to rally behind. Nationalistic sentiment runs high and mighty, and it drowns all other voices.”
The censorship campaign can be traced to a dispute that erupted last month, when the Swedish clothing giant H&M was suddenly scrubbed from Chinese online shopping sites. The move came after the Communist Youth League and state news media resurfaced a statement H&M made months ago expressing concerns about forced labor in Xinjiang.
Other Western clothing brands had also said they would avoid using Xinjiang cotton, and one after another, many Chinese celebrities severed ties with them. Since then, the loyalty test seems to have spread to streaming shows.
Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies media and politics, said he believed that the platforms most likely censored the brands to pre-empt a backlash from viewers.
“If anyone is not happy with those brands appearing in the shows, they could start a social media campaign attacking the producers, which could attract attention from the government and eventually lead to punishment,” he said by email on Thursday.
As the blurring spread across apparel brands, it led to some hiccups on shows. The video platform iQiyi announced that it would delay the release of an episode of “Youth With You 3,” a reality show for aspiring pop idols. It did not disclose the reason, but internet users surmised that it had to do with Adidas, which had supplied T-shirts and sneakers for the contestants to wear as a sort of team uniform.
Some internet users made mocking predictions about how the upcoming episode would look, photoshopping images to flip the contestants vertically so that their Adidas T-shirts read, “Sabiba” instead.
When the episode streamed two days later, pixelated rectangles obscured the T-shirts and sports jackets of dozens of dancers and the distinguishing triple stripes on their Adidas sneakers. Internet users observed mirthfully that none of the shirts had been spared, save for the one contestant who had worn his shirt backward. Many extended condolences to video editors for their lost sleep and labor blurring the T-shirts.
Other shows executed similar blurring feats in postproduction. Contestants on another reality show for entertainers, “Sisters Who Make Waves,” practiced cartwheels in sneakers blitzed into indiscernible blurs. So many shoes were erased in the stand-up comedy series, “Roast” that when a group gathered on a podium, the space between the floor and their long hems appeared to melt into a fog.
A representative for Tencent Video, which hosts “Roast,” declined to comment on why some brands were censored. The 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 emailed questions.
The onscreen blur or crop is hardly novel in China. The earlobes of male pop stars have been airbrushed to hide earrings deemed too effeminate. A period drama featuring décolletage distinctive to the Tang Dynasty was pulled off the air in 2015, only to be replaced with a version that cropped out much of the costumes and awkwardly zoomed in on the talking heads of the performers. Soccer players have been ordered to cover arm tattoos with long sleeves.
The onscreen censorship illustrates the difficult line that the online video platforms, which are regulated by the National Radio and Television Administration, need to tread.
“The blurring is likely the platforms’ self-censorship in order to be safe than sorry,” said Haifeng Huang, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Merced and a scholar of authoritarianism and public opinion in China.
“But it nevertheless implies the power of the state and the nationalistic segment of the society, which is also likely the message that the audience gets: These big platforms have to censor themselves even without being explicitly told so.”
The blurring 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 commonplace, people are desensitized and even treat it as another form of entertainment,” Professor Huang said.
Albee Zhang and Joy Dong contributed research.