Another Brick In the Wall: Music Site’s Blocking Further Closes Off Chinese Internet

Nobody was surprised when Clubhouse, the viral app on which Chinese users shared their unfiltered views with global audiences, was blocked in China. Users had widely anticipated that Clubhouse would have to die. But the sudden blocking of Bandcamp, an international independent music platform, shocked Chinese and international observers. Together with the recent raid on Renren Yingshi, the subtitling group that provided uncensored international film and television translations to the Chinese public, the block illustrates the significant ongoing constriction of space for unregulated cultural exchange. At Radii China, Jake Newby broke the news that the app was banned:

The music streaming platform, which has made headlines throughout the past year for its artist-centric model and in particular its excellent Bandcamp Fridays initiative, has become a popular outlet for Chinese indie bands in recent years. It’s no coincidence that RADII’s monthly round-ups of the best Chinese music have frequently been dominated by tracks sourced from the site.

Bandcamp’s disappearance behind the so-called “Great Firewall” — China’s system of controls on certain overseas websites and services — has been met with dismay by many in Chinese music circles, as the site had provided an important bridge between DIY labels and artists in the country and international audiences. In the short-term, many of those using the platform from within China will likely find a way around the block, but the longer-term impact should not be underestimated.

[…] Unfortunately, it seems the blocking of Bandcamp may throw up a barrier for artists hoping to reach international audiences who want to explore the extremely diverse, fascinating Chinese music scene. [Source]

At Vice News, Josh Terry wrote about Bandcamp’s relationship with Chinese rocker Li Zhi, who has had numerous songs, like “The Square,” banned in China. [Read more about Li Zhi, including translations of The Square and other songs, via CDT.]:

It’s unclear exactly why the Chinese government may have chosen to block Bandcamp at this point in time. While China recently blocked the rising social media app Clubhouse, which Chinese citizens used to freely discuss politics and debate contentious issues, Bandcamp is not a forum for political dissent or protest in the usual sense—at least of any overt kind. In fact, as [Josh] Feola points out in a 2020 newsletter, “to legally release an album in mainland China, all lyrics must be submitted beforehand to a Department of Culture bureau for official approval.”

There are acts who have pushed the boundaries, and the Chinese Culture bureau has cracked down especially hard on hip-hop. One notable case is influential Chinese folk musician Li Zhi, a musician who, according to Radii China, was known for being a fierce defender of artist copyright and for suing companies for infringement; in 2019, after Sichuan Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism canceled his tour due unspecified “misbehavior,” Radii China reports, his social media accounts were removed from platforms like Weibo and WeChat and his music was scrubbed from streaming services. (He is now living in exile from China).

[…] As Feola sees it, a ban on Bandcamp would probably be more a matter of the Chinese government wanting to make it harder for underground artists from mainland China to reach a global audience than worrying about Western media getting into the country. Big Chinese streaming services like QQ and other Tencent-owned platforms, after all, already have deals in place with companies like Sony, Warner Music, and Universal Music Group, which means that Chinese users have access to Western popular music. “If I had to wager a guess, I’d say [the ban] was more about protectionism than censorship,” Feola said. [Source]

Feola is a regular contributor to the Bandcamp Daily blog, where he has highlighted a wide range of music from China and elsewhere.

The earlier closure of Renren Yingshi was another recent blow to China’s independent cultural sphere. For nearly two decades, the subtitling group provided free, uncensored, translated Hollywood films and television shows to Chinese viewers. The likely end of the group sparked a large outcry on the Chinese internet. CDT Chinese’s Sensitive Word Series tracked censorship of netizen’s complaints about the raid on Renren. Censors on Weibo deleted screenshots of a 2011 People’s Daily article that praised the subtitling group as a model of the egalitarian knowledge-sharing ethos of the internet era. At The Wall Street Journal, Sha Hua reported on the end of Renren Yingshi and the future of uncensored television content in China:

The outsized reaction to the possible demise of Renren Yingshi, which roughly translates to “Everybody’s Film and TV,” illustrates the voracious appetite for uncensored foreign content that still exists in China, even as Mr. Xi feeds a nationalist fervor and inveighs against the influence of Western ideas. It has also provided a rare occasion for some Chinese citizens, mostly well-educated urbanites, to push back against censorship at a time of increasingly tightened media controls.

[…] “If Renren has committed a crime, then everybody has committed a crime,” several Chinese social-media users wrote in a play on the group’s name.

Pirated content has been a staple in China’s entertainment diet since the late 1990s, in part because of restrictions on the import of foreign films and censorship that many viewers blamed for rendering some shows unwatchable.

[…] “Taking down Renren, the biggest and most influential [fan subtitling] group, sends a signal to other groups like them,” said Yu Meng, a legal expert and co-founder of the journal China Justice Observer. [Source]

At The Economist, Sue-Lin Wong reflected on what the end of Renren Yingshi means for China’s Hollywood fans:

[…] Demand for Renren Yingshi’s offerings was fuelled by tight supply. China is one of four regions without Netflix: the others are North Korea, Syria and Crimea. Even though it is one of the fastest growing film markets, China approves only a few foreign films for screening in cinemas each year. It is possible to watch some foreign shows on officially approved streaming sites. But they are heavily censored—so much so in the case of “Game of Thrones” that the plot is hard to follow. Such restrictions helped to turn translation-group services into big operations. Police in Shanghai said Renren Yingshi had produced more than 20,000 television shows for its 8m registered users.

Renren Yingshi’s popularity is evident in the debate that still surrounds it on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. Posts with hashtags relating to the clampdown have garnered more than a billion views. In one of them, Yan Feng of Fudan University in Shanghai said the subtitling effort had been one of Chinese history’s great translation projects, on a par with a drive to render Western literature into Chinese in the 19th century. Uncensored foreign films and shows will remain accessible to Chinese viewers with foreign-language skills and software that can scale the great firewall. But most people are unlikely to try, not least because the government disapproves. Netizens have been sharing the poetic Chinese term, lindong jiangzhi. It is one that subtitling enthusiasts have used to translate a phrase made famous by “Game of Thrones”: winter is coming. [Source]

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