Game of Thrones Abroad: Can China have their lemon cakes and eat them too?

If you like international news, fantasy sagas, and the internet as much as I do, you probably heard some outcry this past week over the Chinese government’s decision regarding the TV series Game of Thrones. You can’t know how excited I am to even suggest that this show is relevant to current world events. The series has been permitted to air in the PRC, despite some reportedly heavy edits in the name of censorship.

According to the South China Morning Star, one viewer of the altered pilot episode felt it was reduced to “a medieval European castle documentary.” What was the motivation behind this move? According to Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post, it may be a shrewd political maneuver for China to take the plot to the chopping block. He even says that that even more content could have been removed to dull the edge of the mystical/political/sexual/savage drama. Tharoor cites parallels between the two nations like a border blocked by a vast wall and the previous ruling order having been deposed and living in exile. Similarities are one thing, but why would the affairs of the Seven Kingdoms put China’s government on edge? Consider that by the show’s second season, four out of seven of these kingdoms are rebelling. Five different characters are claiming some sort of kingship for themselves, and each is backing up that claim with every possible bit of military power. And when the armies of these mighty lords clash, it’s the common people that get trampled. Not to mention the last surviving heir to a toppled dynasty is preparing for a comeback and gaining a reputation for liberating oppressed populations. She may take her time accomplishing her goals and hit her fair share of snags, but team Daenerys always packs a wallop.

I could go on and on about the struggle for the Iron Throne, but I’ll try to stay on point here. I have to agree with Mr. Tharoor, no government would want to invite a comparison to Westeros given the show’s displays of rampant poverty, instability, corruption, and violence. China seems to be playing on the safe side by censoring this sweeping hit. Yet if China does in fact feel that the story and themes set forth in Thrones could encourage a challenge the authority of the government, why is the show being aired in the first place? Obviously viewers aren’t fooled by what they’re seeing. As Lily Kuo points out in Quartz, China is struggling to keep state broadcasting competitive with private alternatives for entertainment. So adding a big-ticket attraction to the lineup seems like a wise move. However the fact of the matter is that viewers are only being offered parts of a hit show, when the full monty is just a few clicks away.

Media censorship, whether rationalized with morality, piety, or patriotism, is essentially telling people what they should and should not be exposed to. Instead of an earnest plea or stern suggestion, obedience is achieved with a stranglehold on what media is accessible. This is where China’s efforts become laughable. Privately owned online sources provide access to video streaming to millions in China. The Chinese government is playing in a competitive entertainment market, and yet their strategy is to distribute a product that is still substandard to the alternatives. China is proving that the implications of censorship are not just ethical, but economical as well. This anecdote is obvious enough to introduce supply and demand to a high school class.

I noted that censorship is telling people what information they should consume and enforcing that mandate. In the attempt to give audiences a watered-down version of what they can easily obtain elsewhere, the Chinese government did something far more foolhardy. They told people what media they should want to consume, and they’re letting the consumer decide whether or not to play along. But the best thing about foolish decisions is that they usually provide learning experiences. It is a long shot, but if the lite version of Game of Thrones does not bring viewers flocking back to state-run television, China may start to learn that censorship can alienate more people than the fictitious War of the Five Kings. Something only factual political history shows is that for an economy, nation, and people to grow and succeed, the exchange of information cannot be curbed.

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