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The celebrity-packed Friends reunion was conspicuously less star-loaded when it landed in China on Thursday. Approximately six minutes of the special episode was missing as it rolled out on Chinese streaming services. Among the cuts: special appearances by K-pop supergroup BTS, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, as well as brief cameos made by LGBTQ Friends fans.
China boasts an enormous Friends fan base and the reunion special was acquired by all three of the country’s leading video platforms — iQiyi, Tencent Video and Alibaba’s Youku. Each of the services appears to have made heavy-handed alterations to the episode in anticipation of complaints from Beijing regulators and the country’s notorious nationalist internet trolls. Although the exact cuts made by each streamer differed slightly, they all ultimately shaved about six minutes from the original HBO Max version, which had a runtime of 1:43:50.
In the original version of the special, BTS briefly appears to share its love of Friends, with group leader RM saying the show “really taught me things about life and true friendship.” In China, this segment was missing altogether.
BTS have been a target of China’s censors and nationalists since last October. While receiving an award celebrating cultural relations between the U.S. and South Korea, RM mentioned the “history of pain” and “shared sacrifices” of South Korean and U.S. soldiers during the Korean War. Some in China viewed the remarks as an affront, since China supported the North in the war and also suffered heavy casualties. BTS-starring ad campaigns were promptly pulled in the country and the group has remained personae non grata ever since.
Lady Gaga’s widely praised rendition of “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe was trimmed back to just a few seconds to excise the pop star from the bit entirely. Gaga has been banned in China ever since she met with the Dalai Lama — a dangerous separatist in Beijing’s view — back in 2016.
Bieber accidentally infuriated Chinese fans in 2014 when he posted on Instagram about a visit he made to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, not knowing that the religious site is a source of international controversy because the souls of Japanese World War II war criminals have been interred there (Japanese political leaders routinely anger Seoul and Beijing by making ceremonial visits to the shrine). Bieber has been blacklisted in China ever since. Thus, Bieber’s brief appearance in the HBO Max special, in which he dons Ross’ ridiculous “Spudnik” Halloween costume, also got the ax.
Most repressive was the Chinese streamers’ handling of the brief moments in the Friends reunion that reference or celebrate LGBTQ fans of the show. Any sequences hinting at gay lifestyles was cut by all three platforms, including a heartwarming statement made by a German fan named Ricardo, who appears in the special to say, “I was a gay man who wanted to have hair like Jennifer Aniston, so you can imagine how lonely I sometimes felt.”
Other cuts were plainly prudish, if innocuous, such as the removal of a moment when Joey appears in a bathrobe with a picture of Ross pasted to his groin.
Despite the cuts, the Friends reunion appears to have struck a major chord in China. An outpouring of emotion and nostalgia for the show has proliferated across Chinese social media since the premiere. The special currently has a sky-high 9.5/10 rating on China’s movie and TV reviews site Douban, making it one of the highest-rated TV imports in recent memory.
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