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Why Disney’s Christopher Robin Is Not Released in China (And It’s Not Just Because of Winnie)

Recently, many foreign media reported that Disney’s ‘Christopher Robin’ (2018) will not be released in China due to an alleged “nationwide ban” on Winnie. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

Manya Koetse

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Disney’s latest film Christopher Robin will not be released in Chinese cinemas. Many English-language media claim it is for the fact that the movie’s main star, Winnie the Pooh, is regarded too politically sensitive in the country. But these reports are clouded by misconceptions: Winnie is not banned in China, and it is common for Western films not to be released in the PRC. What’s on Weibo explains.

 
With contributions from Luka de Boni
 

Christopher Robin, denied Chinese release, is the latest victim in China’s war on Winnie the Pooh,” writes Vox. “China gives Winnie the Pooh the enemy-of-the-state treatment,” says a recent New York Post headline.

Over the past days, the fact that Disney’s new 2018 film Christopher Robin will not premiere in mainland China has made headlines in many English-language media, first reported by The Hollywood Reporter.

Most sources allege that the movie, inspired by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh, will not be released in the country’s theatres because “Chinese leader Xi Jinping is prickly about comparisons between him and the lovable cartoon character, who has become a symbol of the resistance there” (Vox).

Film poster for Christopher Robin (Disney 2018).

BBC linked the film’s absence from Chinese movie theatres to Winnie and the supposed “nationwide clampdown on references to the beloved children’s character.”

But to what extent are these allegations true? There seem to be some misconceptions in many media about the scope of censorship on Winnie, and the release of non-Chinese films in mainland China.

 

What’s up with Winnie?

 

Over the past four years, Winnie the Pooh has, at times, been used as a political and satirical meme on Chinese social media, first becoming a target for China’s online censors when netizens compared Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, who met at the California Summit, with Pooh and Tigger in 2013.

In September of 2015, an image of Pooh became trending again on the day of the military parade. During the Beijing Parade that commemorated the 70th anniversary of WWII, President Xi Jinping drove around in a car (image), inspecting the troops.

When someone watching the parade then posted an image of Pooh bear in a toy car on Weibo, it was shared 62.000 times in little over an hour. Online responses included: “As I watched [the parade], I told my mother and father the similarities [between Pooh and the President] were uncanny.” The post was then soon deleted from Weibo.

This image of Pooh was censored in 2015.

The same happened in February of 2018, when images of Winnie the Pooh as a king emerged on Weibo after the end of China’s two-term limit on presidency was announced.

Although the censorship of Pooh at these specific moments are reason enough to call the bear some sort of “symbol of defiance against censorship,” it is not reason enough to assume the bear is at the epicenter of “a nationwide clampdown,” as BBC suggested.

 

“Winnie the Pooh is not banned from China, neither online nor offline.”

 

Winnie the Pooh is not banned from China, neither online nor offline. The bear is quite popular, just as in many other countries, and people walk around wearing Pooh t-shirts and accessories in Chinese cities every day.

A current search on Chinese search engine Baidu for ‘Winnie the Pooh’ (“小熊维尼”) generates 8.5 million results. Taobao sells countless Winnie items on its e-commerce platform, and on social media site Weibo, thousands of Chinese netizens post photos of their Winnie-themed merchandise or favorite characters.

Random selection of Winnie-related posts on Weibo today (compilarion What’s on Weibo).

Disney’s Christopher Robin is also discussed online; not just by netizens but also by state media.

The moments that Pooh was censored on Chinese social media in the past, were times that China’s censorship machine was going at full-speed already. Any time that President Xi is taking part in an important meeting or event, whether it is a BRIC summit, military parade, or bilateral meeting, social media is more controlled than usual.

Because netizens were using the image of Pooh in a way that was meant to make fun of these high-profile political occasions and figures at particularly these times, they were censored. In other words: the Winnie images were censored along with many other things at particularly sensitive times for mocking a political event or figure.

Although it makes sense to say that Winnie the Pooh is perhaps more ‘sensitive’ than other cartoons (although Peppa Pig and Rage Comics had their share of censorship, too), it is questionable if this sensitivity is enough of a reason to ban Disney’s new blockbuster Christopher Robin.

 

Chinese Summer: Not a Time for Western Films

 

But if not for the bear itself, what would be a reason not to release a promising Disney movie? China’s strict foreign film import quota may play an important role.

Since the 1990s, China has a ‘foreign film quota.’ In the early years, this meant that just a small quote of foreign films were allowed to be imported into China, and in 2012, this was increased to 34 foreign movies per year. The amount of revenue that foreign producers can take from these movies is restricted to 25% (Latham 2007, 185; Ma 2017, 193).

Although Hollywood lobbyists have been negotiating with Chinese film authorities to allow more foreign films to be imported under revenue-sharing terms, there’s been little progress for now – the ongoing looming trade-war has not benefited the situation.

Besides the longstanding cap on foreign films, China also has unofficial ‘Hollywood black-out periods’ in which Hollywood blockbusters are prevented to enter the market so as to boost sales of local productions, a phenomenon dubbed “Domestic Film Protection Month” (国产电影保护月).

The term was allegedly coined in 2004, when Chinese media reported about an order restricting screening foreign films between June 10 and July 10 each year. Although the measure was never officially admitted by government officials, this unspoken policy has been executed for the past 14 years (read more here). As a consequence, it is common for big American productions to not be released in China during the summer months, the period where cinemas make the most revenues. 

In 2011, for example, the Harry Potter blockbuster of the year was premiered in China five weeks later than it was in the rest of the world. Last summer, both Dunkirk and Spider-Man: Homecoming had their release dates delayed by several months, most probably to give the patriotic, local production Wolf-Warrior 2 a boost in sales. 

These black-out periods can also serve another purpose. According to CNBC, they can also be used to give Chinese film authorities additional bargaining power in their negotiations with US lobbyists. With these negotiations increasing in importance lately, as a result of deteriorating US-China trade relations, it might make sense that Chinese authorities would want to put themselves in the most favorable bargaining position.  

Each year, it is unclear when the ‘black-out period’ starts and ends. Generally, it can start as early as mid-June and finish as late as late-August.

 

Goodbye, Christopher Robin?

 

With many netizens and various state media (including China Global Television Network) posting about the release of Christopher Robin on Weibo and beyond, it is unlikely that political sensitivity over Winnie is the (only) reason why the film will not be shown in Chinese cinemas this summer.

Whether or not the film will definitely not come out in China is also not clear. The process of translation and censorship checking for films can take a long time and will sometimes mean films come out much later in the PRC.

Even when not reaching the big screens, most Hollywood blockbusters will eventually be available for viewing on online channels such as Youku or iQiyi.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), another movie focusing on the story of Winnie the Pooh, is available for viewing on iQiyi and other (paid) streaming sites in China.

Many netizens would welcome a delayed release of Christopher Robin in China. The movie’s hashtag (#克里斯托弗·罗宾#) has already been viewed nearly three million times on Weibo.

While for many, the bear has no political connotations, there are also those who are still trying to post pictures of President Xi Jinping as Pooh – those will soon be deleted.

“I just wanted to see if it would be deleted,” the Weibo user says: “But actually, I really do think he’s cute.”

For more on this, check out today’s feature on BBC World Update (video by What’s on Weibo).

By Manya Koetse, and Luka de Boni

References

Latham, Kevin. 2007. Pop Culture China! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Oxford: ABC Clio.

Ma, Winston. 2017. China’s Mobile Economy: Opportunities in the Largest and Fastest Information Consumption Boom. Cornwall: Wiley.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie ‘Home Coming’ Becomes National Day Box Office Hit

China’s latest patriotic blockbuster ‘Home Coming’ focuses on Chinese diplomats as the saviours of overseas Chinese in times of trouble.

Manya Koetse

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China has got another patriotic box office hit this National Day holiday. ‘Home Coming’ (万里归途) is inspired by China’s overseas citizens protection response during the 2011 Libya crisis, and is sparking waves of nationalistic sentiments.

On October 1st, China’s National Day, the Chinese movie Home Coming (万里归途) became a trending topic on Chinese social media after its cinema debut on September 30. On Saturday, the movie’s box office sales hit 200 million yuan ($28 million) (#万里归途票房破2亿#).

The National Day holiday, which started on Saturday, is a common time for Chinese domestic movies – often patriotic ones – to hit the theaters. It is one of the most profitable times of the year for Chinese cinemas and also the time when the biggest domestically-produced films are boosted while Hollywood movies are limited.

The 2022 Home Coming war drama was directed by Rao Xiaozhi (饶晓志) and features major Chinese actors such as Zhang Yi (张译), Wang Junkai (王俊凯) and Yin Tao (殷桃).

The film tells the story of Chinese diplomats Zong Dawei (大伟与) and Cheng Lang (成朗), who are ordered to assist in the evacuation of overseas Chinese when war breaks out in North Africa in 2011. Just when they think they’ve successfully completed their mission, they learn they have to return to save a group of 125 compatriots who are still left behind.

The movie is said to be based on real events but it is set in the fictional Numia Republic (努米亚共和国). According to Chinese state media outlet China.org, Home Coming is inspired by an evacuation event in Libya in 2011, when the Chinese embassy reportedly evacuated more than 30,000 Chinese nationals in a time frame of 12 days.

At the time, Chinese official media called it “the largest such operation China had mounted abroad since the Nationalists fled in 1949” and Chinese nationals were evacuated from the war-torn Libya via land, sea, and air (Zerba 2015, 107).

On Weibo, there are many reviewers giving Home Coming a five-star rating, with some saying the movie moved them to tears. “I needed four tissues,” one movie-goer said, while another person complained that they forgot to bring any tissues to dry their tears. In light of the movie’s premiere, photos of people crying while watching the film also circulated online.

Although there were also a lot of fans who especially loved the role played by the super popular Wang Junkai, many movie-goers expressed pride in China after watching the movie, which revolves around the idea of finding one’s way back home – back to China.

Although Home Coming is said to be the first film about a Chinese foreign evacuation from a diplomat’s perspective, there have been multiple domestic movies over the past decade focusing on Chinese civilians needing to be rescued from chaos erupting abroad.

In Operation Red Sea (红海行动, 2018), which also stars Zhang Yi, a Chinese special task force sets out on a risky mission to evacuate civilians amid civil war in the fictional ‘Republic of Ihwea’ – loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015.

At the end of the Home Coming movie, a text showed up on the screen to remind Chinese viewers to always get in touch with the Foreign Ministry hotline for assistance if they find themselves in an emergency situation while abroad.

Chinese movie star Wu Jing (吴京) also makes a cameo appearance in this film. Wu is most famous for his role in Wolf Warrior 2, in which he plays a special forces soldier who battles foreign mercenaries and helps Chinese and African citizens during a local war in Africa.

“My love for my country reached a new height after seeing this film,” one person wrote, with others applauding the efforts of Chinese diplomats and saying they were so happy be a Chinese national.

While Home Coming was trending on Chinese social media, last year’s patriotic hit film also went trending at the same time (#长津湖首播收视率第一#): Battle at Lake Changjin was aired on TV for the first time by CCTV-6 on the evening of October 1st. To read more about why that movie became such a major success, check out our article here.

By Manya Koetse 

References

Zerba, Shaio H. 2015. “China’s Libya Evacuation Operation: a new diplomatic imperative – overseas citizen protection.” In Suisheng Zhao (ed), China in Africa: Strategic Motives and Economic Interests, p 100-120.

 

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China Brands & Marketing

About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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