The US sitcom Friends holds a unique place in Chinese pop culture.
It’s one of the most beloved foreign TV shows in China and watching it was many Chinese fans’ first exposure to American culture.
“I started watching Friends in year six and it means a great deal to me, just like a companion I grew up with,” long-time fan Amy Jing said.
“Before going abroad, I practised my IELTS test (English language test) by watching Friends over and over again.
But fans like Ms Jing have been outraged this week over the censorship of re-released episodes of the program.
Major Chinese streaming sites, including Tencent, Baidu’s IQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku, and Bilibili, recently started showing a version of the first season of the show, its first re-release in China for several years.
But viewers quickly noticed parts of the long-running program were different to what they had seen before, including the removal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-related content, as well as mistranslations.
Fergus Ryan, a leading China researcher from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the censorship reflected Beijing’s concern about the country’s declining birth rate.
Mr Ryan said the Chinese government’s efforts to boost population growth by “getting rid of the one-child policy and introducing two- and three-child policies” were not working.
“[The censorship] is a part of the Chinese Communist Party’s renewed emphasis on traditional gender roles, targeting non-traditional family values and culture,” he said.
Mr Ryan added the censors might have wanted to suppress discussion of gender roles not focused solely on procreation, which could be prompted by the depiction of gay and lesbian people.
‘Multiple orgasms’ becomes ‘women gossip endlessly’
The most significant change in the new version of the show is the complete removal of main character Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, who divorces him after coming out as a lesbian.
In one scene, in which Ross originally told his parents that his wife was living with another woman, he instead just opens his mouth before the camera cuts to his parents’ shocked faces.
“The deletions made are so crude, and the plots sometimes don’t even connect or make sense after the changes,” Ms Jing said.
Other changes included mistranslations of mildly sexually suggestive references.
In one instance, a reference to women experiencing “multiple orgasms” is translated as “women gossip endlessly” in Chinese.
“The show was first aired in 1994, it’s ironic to think that a show made more than 20 years ago still needs to be censored today,” Ms Jing said.
Pan Wang, a senior lecturer in Chinese and Asian studies at UNSW, said she believed the censorship had more to do with the government’s desire to “control social stability” rather than the country’s birth rate.
“The censorship is about the role of the media that the government wants to define for control and governance,” she said.
“China wants the media to vigorously promote and advance socialist culture … anything the party considers vulgar, unhealthy or deviant from the mainstream content must be banned.”
She said China’s growing LGBT and feminist movements could be seen by the government as sources of social instability that justified the censorship.
Dr Wang said media censorship of LGBT and sexual content was also a part of China’s broader political agenda to “build up the country’s masculinity” in the sense of “being powerful and strong”.
“For example, the government wants the boys to be ‘really like boys’, instead of being sissy or effeminate because that reflects China’s strength of power,” she said.
Censorship standards deliberately ambiguous
It’s unclear whether the cuts were made by the Chinese government or by the show’s distributor in China.
Chandler, who asked that his real name not be used to protect his identity, previously worked in China’s film and television copyright industry and said while Beijing had “red lines” that clearly could not be crossed, it was sometimes unclear what the government would censor.
He said such ambiguity led media organisations to cut material before sending the shows to be assessed by the government.
“The ambiguity creates a problem, which is that the platforms that hold the copyright of the shows may just delete in advance anything that might be censored,” he said.
“Sometimes if the copyright companies send a film or show to the supervising bodies but it doesn’t pass the censorship process, that film or show will go onto a ‘black list’.
“Then you would need to delete the ‘inappropriate content’ and also change the Chinese name of the show and resend it.”
Chandler said this was a complicated, time-consuming process that involved “loads of paperwork”.
In January, the dystopian ending of David Finch’s Fight Club was changed on the Chinese streaming platform Tencent to one where the establishment wins.
The police “rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding”, says the new ending.
However, after eliciting a huge public outcry on social media, the original ending was restored.
Workers in China’s entertainment industry have been calling for the establishment of a ratings system for many years as a solution to the problem of ambiguous censorship standards.
However, Mr Ryan said the ambiguity suited the government because it allowed the “flexibility to deal with whatever is happening”.
“It is in the interest of the Chinese Communist Party to not precisely codify what is and is not appropriate,” he said.
Nothing new for China’s LGBTQ+ community
Andy Lyu, founder of Love & Voice, an LGBTQ+ community group in China, said the censorship was “nothing new or surprising”.
“But of course, we are still very disappointed to see this occurring again,” Mx Lyu said.
“Content relevant to homosexuality is often connected to obscenity and pornography [in China].
According to China’s official guidelines, shows that “express abnormal sexual relations and behaviours … such as homosexuality” and “display or promote unhealthy views on marriage and love, such as extramarital affairs, one-night stands, sexual freedom” cannot be made or aired.
Muriel Qiu, an LGBTQ+ advocate from Shanghai, said through depicting the “harmonious relationship” between Ross and his lesbian ex-wife, Friends “presented a possibility for family diversity” which is rare in today’s China.
“It’s a pity for the broader audiences in China who can only watch Friends through these streaming platforms,” she said.
Mx Lyu said media censorship is just one form of control among the various other forms of censorship faced by the LGBTQ+ community in China.
“Around 2015, you could start to see the development of LGBTQ+ community groups being limited in many ways,” they said.
“Events are being cancelled, funding is being cut, and radical activists are being arrested.”
Watching Friends across the ‘wall’
For Chinese viewers, censorship of film and television is not uncommon but it usually won’t stop people who want to see original versions from doing so.
“The wall is there, but there are many ways to see the uncensored version,” said Ms Jing.
“For example, when the ‘wall’ was not so high and thick before, most fans would have already downloaded the pirated but uncensored version of the show to their online disk.
“Another way is to use a VPN to get across the wall and watch the show on overseas platforms.
“I think the supervisory bodies are just using censorship to declare their official stances, but they won’t actually do anything to people who are using these alternative ways.”