“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the duo wrote in a statement on Twitter. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy."
The criticism comes amid a wave of Hollywood films adjusting to the whims of Chinese censorship and during the annual journey NBA teams make to China to grow the league’s foreign fan base.
Filmmakers have worked hard to appease Chinese censors and appeal to its audiences in recent years, in order to rake in millions at the nation’s box offices. The women-led “Ghostbusters” remake in 2016 tried to slip past the ban on films that promote superstitions or cults by changing its translated title — and may have walked back the LGBT identity of Kate McKinnon’s character, Vanity Fair reported — but Chinese officials blocked the film’s release anyway. That same year, “Zootopia” replaced a moose with a panda just for the film’s Chinese launch. Earlier this year, filmmakers clipped nearly three minutes of footage from the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” to remove all references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality.
The controversy over a since-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has brought criticism of Chinese censorship to the forefront yet again.
On Wednesday, “South Park” released an episode called “Band in China,” which featured the clueless Randy Marsh, the most prominently featured parent in the show, detained in a Chinese prison and labor camp for trying to sell the marijuana he grows on his Colorado farm to what he thinks will be a large, untapped market in China. Meanwhile, his son, Stan, battles with a film producer over the script for a biopic about his death metal band as Chinese advisers request rewrite after rewrite to appease the government’s strict content standards.
“For this movie to really make money, we need to clear the Chinese censors,” the producer tells Stan. “You gotta lower your ideals of freedom if you wanna” do business in China, he adds, punctuating the joke with a graphic metaphor.
In a scene at the beginning of the episode, several NBA players, including one wearing a Houston Rockets jersey, and recognizable Disney characters — including Elsa of “Frozen” and Thor of “The Avengers” — fly to China as brand ambassadors to entice Chinese viewers to tune in to their American programming. Randy goes to extreme lengths to satisfy the Chinese officials and regain his freedom, eventually strangling Winnie the Pooh, another victim of the country’s suppression of speech. His son rejects the censors’ demands, boldly proclaiming that he cannot sell his soul to make money in the Chinese film market.
“It’s not worth living in a world where China controls my country’s art,” Stan eventually tells the producer as he abandons the biopic.
Just two days after the episode aired, the NBA scrambled to respond after Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong, where millions of pro-democracy demonstrators have been clashing with police over Chinese interference in the semiautonomous territory.
“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote in a now-deleted tweet on Friday. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta rushed to clarify that Morey “does NOT speak for” the Rockets. Rockets star James Harden apologized and told reporters, “We love China,” while standing with teammate Russell Westbrook during a practice in Tokyo on Monday, ESPN reported.
The NBA issued a statement defending Morey’s right to share his views but also said it was “deeply regrettable” that those views “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.”
The league’s response led to swift criticism from U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate, suggested the NBA was more concerned with money than protecting its people.
“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “What an embarrassment.”
Morey’s tweet, though, wasn’t the only sentiment that ran afoul of Chinese censors this weekend.
The Hollywood Reporter searched Monday for the show on several Internet platforms subject to Chinese censorship standards and could not find large swaths of “South Park” content. The outlet could not find the show mentioned on the country’s Twitter-like social networking site Weibo and found discussion threads about the show had been killed on China’s largest discussion platform, Tieba.
On Tuesday, the show was removed from China’s most popular streaming services, like Youku and Bilibili.com. When users search for the offending episode using its season and episode code, “s23e02,” the services returned the message: “Due to relevant policies’ laws and regulations, some search results cannot be shown.”
The “South Park” creators have issued snarky statements in the past, notably telling the Church of Scientology “you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun!” after Comedy Central yanked a rerun off the air, reportedly under pressure from actor Tom Cruise.
Some politicians agreed with Stone and Parker that Chinese censorship has had too much sway in the United States.
“Annoy a communist. Watch South Park,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wrote on Twitter on Monday afternoon. Cruz, who says he’s a lifelong Rockets fan, has vocally criticized the NBA for its response to Morey’s tweet.
Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.
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