China has a longstanding tradition of demanding—and receiving—apologies from foreign businesses that offend the communist government. This week, the creators of the Comedy Central show South Park turned the tradition on its head while also skewering the NBA for bowing under Chinese pressure.
South Park’s “Band in China” episode, which aired Oct. 2, poked fun at the ethical problems surrounding American entities bending over backward to appease China’s authoritarian regime. That’s exactly what the NBA did in a public display of contrition after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Oct. 4.
China responded to the South Park episode by banning the show and all related content from the country’s streaming platforms and internet. On Tuesday, South Park tweeted an “official” apology from creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”
Though a cartoon, South Park regularly features blasphemous, obscene, and explicit content. Yet somehow it has become one of the few voices in American entertainment willing to stand up for the victims of oppression in China. When China started pulling its support of the Houston Rockets after Morey’s tweet, the NBA issued a statement on Chinese social media saying it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.” The “inappropriate comment” Morey had posted said, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The week of his post, authorities in Hong Kong subjected protesters to live rounds of gunfire and banned face masks that protected them from tear gas.
The NBA is the latest but not the first entertainment company to exchange the freedom of expression for access to the lucrative Chinese market. For Marvel Studios’ 2016 superhero film Doctor Strange, producers rewrote the role of a Tibetan monk into a Celtic sorcerer because of the tension between China and Tibet. In the 2015 film Pixels, Sony reportedly altered a scene originally intended to show aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China to show the destruction of the Taj Mahal instead.
This spring, Apple Music removed several pro-democracy singers and a song by Hong Kong artist Jacky Cheung referencing the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. On Wednesday, the tech giant pulled the HKmap.live app, used by Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters to flag the location of police, from its app store. On Tuesday, Blizzard, which makes the intensely popular video game World of Warcraft, banned a player from an e-sports competition for publicly supporting Hong Kong. Also this week, Google Play removed an app from its store that offered an interactive narrative about a pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong.
In South Park’s banned episode, an irate Mickey Mouse warns a room full of Disney and Marvel characters to cooperate with Chinese officials’ repressive rules on scriptwriting and acting. But the children of South Park, often the voice of simple reason, refuse to do the same as they make their own movie back home. The show’s Stan Marsh character, the 10-year-old leader of a gang of misfits, declares it’s not worth it: “Anybody who would betray their ideals just to make money in China isn’t worth a lick of spit.”