China Censors Popular Gay Drama in Purge of ‘Obscene’ Content

CYBERSPACE—A massively popular sci-fi drama in which the two lead characters are gay has been purged from one of China’s top streaming platforms, as part of the continuing Chinese government campaign to stamp out what it deems “harmful and obscene” content from the internet, according to a report published this weekend by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper.

The move to censor the series Zhenhun, aka Guardian—one of China’s most popular online shows with more than 1.8 billion views over its 40 episodes since it appeared on the Youku streaming service in early July—comes at the sane time as the internet’s dominant search engine, Google, is reportedly readying the launch a Chinese version of the search service, with government censorship already built in, as the investigative news site The Intercept reported last week. 

From 2006 to 2010, Google operated a Chinese version of its search engine, and though that version of Google obeyed China’s censorship policies, it also alerted users to the content that had been blocked due to censorship, according to CNN. But Google pulled out of China in 2010, claiming that the Chinese government had hacked their servers looking to track down political dissidents living outside Chinese borders.

According to The Intercept report, however, the new Chinese version of Google will simply omit all government-censored search results, as if the content never existed at all.

The case of Guardian illustrates how sensitive China’s censors can be when it comes to depictions of sexuality, and gay themes. The 40-part drama is based on a popular novel, written under a pseudonym, in which the two male protagonists are clearly in a relationship. In the adaptation, according to the Morning Post, their relationship was instead presented as “a bond of brotherhood in the hope of avoiding the censors.”

But toning down the novel’s gay themes still wasn’t enough for China’s censorship authorities.

“In order to pass the censors, the screenwriters turned this story into a science fiction drama for children, and it was still taken offline,” wrote one angry fan on an internet message board, quoted by the Morning Post.

The show was only the latest in a series of online programs to be censored by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which, as has previously reported, is waging a stepped-up campaign against what the government calls “harmful and vulgar content that might infringe on the physical and mental health of young people.”

After news broke last week of Google’s reported plan—the report has not been confirmed by Google—to create a new, censored version of its search engine for China, a bipartisan group of six United States Senators sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai blasting the company for its reported willingness to become “complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime.”

Guardian trailer YouTube screen capture