China's 'House of Cards' Fans Protest Online Over Fears of More Censorship

"House of Cards" has become a popular show online in China, despite its portrayals of corruption.

The country's top streaming video sites say new rules posted by censors won't affect imported TV shows, but Chinese elites are preemptively speaking out in defense of the shows they've come to love.

The swelling ranks of Chinese fans of streamed Hollywood TV shows, such as The Walking Dead and House of Cards, have expressed outrage at recently issued regulations requiring tighter censorship for all streaming video in China.

The broadcast watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), said in a statement on its website last month that online companies would have to closely vet content before making it available to stream.

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A survey on Sina Weibo found that 130,153 surveyed users of the micro-blogging service did not want censors to decide which Western television series they could watch.

“We should be free to choose what we want to watch and experience multiple cultures,” wrote one Weibo user.

Just 6,476 people backed new guidelines that require regulatory approval before Western series -- which now include Saturday Night Live, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Danish political drama Borgen -- can appear on a Chinese online video website, with some arguing they were too open and could affect domestic culture.

In a report on the Xinhua government news agency, online companies such as Sohu ruled out the possibility that shows like The Walking Dead and Masters of Sex would be banned.

They insisted that many of the censorship rules were already in place, and said the statement on the government website merely reiterated the status quo.

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"Although American TV series are strictly scrutinized in China, most of those currently available to the public have already been approved," a source told Xinhua.

However, there was no explanation as to why SAPPRFT had chosen now to publish the rules officially, and the publication of the ruling seems to have reminded webizens that online TV shows are not immune from the censor’s attentions. The wording in the SAPPRFT statement was unambiguous.

The websites “should have a solid editing and censorship management system for program content, and need a legally obtained license to stream video and audio programs, issued by the SAPPRFT, and should strictly follow the permission to develop business within the permitted business scope," the watchdog said.

According to data from Entgroup for 2012, Sohu has 144 U.S. and British TV shows, Tencent has 123 and Youku Tudou 109. This compares with a quota of 34 foreign movies allowed on a revenue-sharing basis into China.

Xinhua wrote of how The Hollywood Reporter's coverage of the apparent crackdown had caused thousands of Chinese fans to protest online “at a perceived blow against freedom of choice” -- another sign of the surging popularity of Hollywood shows in China.

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China's ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, has said he has seen every episode of House of Cards, which includes the line “Mao’s China is dead!”

Yin Hong, a film and television professor from Tsinghua University, said censors were unlikely to start axing foreign shows, because online TV still is less influential than satellite or state broadcaster CCTV.

“The threshold for the Internet is still relatively high. The people who watch online videos are young people who are more open-minded and have a higher level of education. The policy on online content is looser,” Yin said.

Entgroup said the ruling had renewed calls for a rating system for Japanese, online and “heavy American” dramas.

Weibo user Mei Dan wrote: “Other countries have censorship of film and TV as well, and European countries and Americans are also very strict on the censorship of the films for minors. But they have rating systems.”