China’s main ecommerce platforms have blocked keyword searches for Squid Game-related products. The dystopian South Korean Netflix show is a sensation in China, despite not being legally available in the country. It seems likely that the bans result from government pressure.
A search of the term “Squid Game” yielded no results on platforms including Alibaba’s Taobao, JD.com and Pinduoduo. Merchants have worked out other ways to sell their products, advising customers to search for keywords such as “squid mask” and “Halloween costume”.
“We tried other words such as ‘squid mask’, which worked [to search for our products],” a merchant told the South China Morning Post. “Based on our experience, only ‘Squid Game’ can’t be used to search on these platforms.”
He added that Squid Game-related merchandise had spawned more traffic to his online shop following the show’s immense popularity in China.
The South Korean drama has generated massive revenue for Chinese manufacturers busy churning out Squid Game-related products for domestic and overseas shoppers. Most Squid Game products available on the international market are made in Chinese factories, which have seen a surge in customers asking for deliveries by Halloween.
“The demand is huge,” a Hangzhou-based merchant told the South China Morning Post, saying that most orders were made from outside China, in countries including the US, Canada, Britain and South Korea. “The show is very popular,” she added.
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The record-breaking drama instantly became an international phenomenon and was also popular in China, despite Netflix being unavailable in the country. Resourceful viewers have found ways to circumvent China’s Great Firewall to download pirated versions.
The hashtag “Squid Game” gained more than 1.6 billion mentions and 310,000 discussions on Chinese social media upon the show’s release in September. Many netizens wondered if China would produce a domestic adaptation.
Chinese Netflix-like streaming website iQiyi – which is majority-owned by search giant Baidu – said there would be no Chinese version anytime soon.
“At this stage, this type of relatively dark subject matter that reflects the particularly dark side of human nature definitely won’t be produced in China,” Wang Xiaohui, chief content officer at iQiyi, told local media TMTPost. “Regarding content production, we must follow ideology and social trends, including the enthusiasm and unity of the Chinese people,” he added.
A Chinese entertainment news commentator said that “in the current environment of review, it is difficult for domestic film and television dramas to showcase the ‘primitive’ side of human nature through such ‘Battle Royale’ type content.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made it clear in its recent five-year plan that it intends to promote traditional Confucian values, highlighting the need to “clean up the internet”. This has resulted in an ongoing squeeze on online content, which has increasingly come to include apolitical content such as celebrity and pop culture.
Last month, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s primary internet watchdog, published a set of “opinions” to foster a “healthy” cyberspace – free from misinformation or information it deems harmful to society – effectively telling platforms to ramp up their self-censoring practices.
Following the CAC’s campaign, iQiyi announced in August that it would stop showing “idol competition” programmes, which were modelled after popular Korean talent shows.