Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’re probably aware that HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ series is currently the hottest thing on television. The show recently commenced its eighth and final season, with the opening episode breaking network viewership records. Speculation among fans about who will be left sitting on the ‘Iron Throne’ by the time all is said and done is at fever pitch. ‘Game of Thrones’ might be American made, but it’s known and loved – and enthusiastically watched – all over the world. That includes China, where, as it turns out, viewers aren’t getting quite the same experience from the show as everybody else.
It’s no secret that Chinese censorship is more stringent than American censorship; the country is significantly more socially conservative, with much tighter regulation on what can and cannot be broadcast on television there. The fact that a show as gory and sexually explicit as ‘Game of Thrones’ is shown there at all is something of a surprise, but given the way that the more ‘edgy’ scenes in the show have been cut out, what’s left is leaving audiences struggling to make sense of the plot.
Where’s The Battle?
Without giving anything away for those who don’t watch the show, the central premise of this final season is that the remaining living characters in the show are preparing to do battle with the ‘Night King’ and his armies. At least two episodes of the season are believed to deal with nothing but battle scenes and their consequences, as fans will their favorites to survive the conflict. For Chinese audiences, though, there may not be a battle at all.
According to at least one source, there are specific regulations in place which prohibit Chinese broadcasters from airing any content which depicts undead creatures. That’s why there are no zombie movies in China. The issue as it relates to ‘Game of Thrones’ is that the ‘Night King’ – and his entire army – are undead creatures. If they’re to be cut out of the show completely, then viewers will presumably be left watching a show in which the characters discuss a battle which is never seen on screen, which then cuts directly to an aftermath scene in which several people are inexplicably dead.
Those who feel that an exception might be made have already been given some discouragement. No less than twenty minutes of the first episode of season 8 was cut from the Chinese transmission – a whole third of its running time. Included within those twenty minutes was a scene where an undead character is pinned to a wall, and essential plot points were made about the battle to come. There now seems to be a very real possibility that the third episode won’t be approved for broadcast at all.
Missing Out On A Cultural Revolution?
Because China isn’t getting to experience the show in all its glory, it’s also missing out on the shift in entertainment culture that’s come along with it. Whereas dragons, medieval battles, and magic were once the preserve of geek culture, they’ve now become mainstream. Without ‘Game of Thrones,’ it’s unlikely that ‘Vikings’ would have gone on to become a success.
The shift in the perception of the particular era in history that ‘Game of Thrones’ (sort of) represents has led to a wave of similar or related entertainment content being produced. ‘Vikings’ is an obvious example, but gaming – which, let’s not forget, is big business in China – is also following the trend. The next ‘Assassin’s Creed’ videogame is to be based on the life and times of the Vikings. A quick glance at online casinos and their sister sites reveal a whole deluge of brand new slot games featuring characters from the era, from ‘Vikings Go Berserk’ to ‘Spartacus: Legendary Warrior.’ The comparison to the world of gaming is an apt one; while slot games, roulette, and poker can be enjoyed by millions of people in the gambler’s paradise of Macau on China’s fringes, it’s banned on the mainland. In the same way, a fringe version of ‘Game of Thrones’ is available to the people of China, but all the real fun is happening outside of its borders.
The broadcast rules are inevitable to Chinese viewers who watch the show. Those who aren’t aware that they’re seeing a censored interpretation presumably believe they’re watching an occasionally-violent drama about castles and dragons, and they may be satisfied with that. For a different type of viewer, though – the sort who has an awareness of what exists beyond the country’s borders – they know they’re being short-changed, and are turning to piracy to solve the problem.
The ease in which the internet can be used to watch the full version of the show online is a handy metaphor for the situation in which China – and also the United States – find themselves in when it comes to their attempts to self-regulate. The damaging trade war they currently find themselves in is one which seems destined to have no winner, but possibly two losers. We live in a global market now. What happens in one large country has a direct effect on other large countries. Policy decisions have global consequences, and the internet ignores borders. If something is online, people can find it. Simply put, you cannot completely prohibit an activity – whether it’s watching a television show or trading in a product – if there are easy ways around the prohibition.
One day soon, China may well have to accept that attempting to censor what its citizens can see on their television screens is a futile exercise when they’re increasingly free to see whatever they please on their computers. When that point of acceptance occurs, they may also reflect on whether inward-looking social policies are still relevant in the modern world.
There are far more serious implications to censorship than just ‘Game of Thrones,’ and more sensitive areas of censorship which ought to be addressed – especially the political kind. When citizens are forced to go looking far and wide to see their favorite entertainment products, though, the genie comes out of the bottle. Who knows what else they might find while they’re looking for it?
For the censors of China, it might just be that winter is coming.