For many Chinese millennials, the US sitcom Friends was a window to the American way of life. Teachers would use the show to help students learn English. Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai have Friends-themed Central Perk cafes. So when news that the original cast were to hold a reunion special nearly 20 years after the show was first introduced into China, diehard fans were excited, and some of China’s biggest online streaming platforms bought the rights to broadcast the show.
But eagle-eyed viewers complained on Thursday that some of the much-talked-about scenes in the original 104-minute runtime were missing.
The missing scenes featured guest stars such as the boyband BTS, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber – all of whom have caused controversy in China. Some concluded that the celebrities were censored because of previous negative headlines. There were also reports that mentions of LGBTQ subjects were censored.
Censorship is not rare in China. But it is not immediately clear whether the cuts were as a result of orders by regulators , or action taken by streamers as a precautionary measure. One of the streamers iQiyi, for example, had six minutes missing from the original one hour and 44 minutes, whereas another platform YouKu cut out about four minutes, according to fans.
On China’s social media platform Weibo, the hashtag #Friends has been viewed more than 1.2bn times and nearly 700,000 discussion entries have taken place. Although much of the discussion has been about enthusiastic fans’ nostalgia for the show, some shared the missing clips and asked why the seemingly innocuous scenes had to be taken out.
“I’m fxxking speechless. Either give us the unedited version or never broadcast the clip. What is the point of watching the censored version?” wrote @Maidoufudaye. “Is homosexual to do with anti-China? So laughable,” said @Luxun201706
Some nationalist commenters on Weibo labelled the censored artists “anti-China”. Lady Gaga, for example, was banned from touring in China in 2016 after meeting with the Dalai Lama, who China calls a “separatist”.
Last week, Weibo banned 10 accounts of the South Korean boyband BTS’s fan clubs from posting for 30 days for “encouraging inappropriate behaviours, including cyberbullying and improper fundraising and voting”.
As for the Canadian singer Justin Bieber, he was banned from performing in China in 2017 for a “series of bad behaviours”, said the authorities. Before the ban, Bieber visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honours convicted war criminals in the second world war.
Additional reporting by Jason Lu