Taylor Swift, fresh from an online feud with Nicki Minaj from Tuesday night, may want to get prepared for a new enemy with even bigger geopolitical influence: the Chinese government.
The issue stems from the American singer's decision to bypass China's many counterfeiters and launch her own Taylor Swift-branded clothing for sale through Chinese e-commerce giants JD.com and Alibaba Group. From August 8, these Web sites will begin selling $60 branded T-shirts and a women's line of clothing, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Swift announced the new business venture to her Chinese fans with a video on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform where she has more than 4 million followers. While most fans seemed positive, some complained that it would be too expensive. As the Guardian's Fergus Ryan notes, however, the bigger problem may come not from the fans, but from Chinese authorities.
That's because the name of her album and upcoming tour, "1989," which is featured on much of her merchandise, can refer to something altogether darker in China.
June 4, 1989, marks the date that the Chinese military moved into Beijing's Tiananmen Square to quash a student uprising that had shaken the Communist regime to its core. What happened next made gruesome headlines around the world, with hundreds if not thousands of civilians killed. For the past 26 years, the Chinese state has strictly controlled all information about what happened that day.
In the Internet era, however, that's become quite a task. In 2013, researcher Jason Ng identified scores of search terms that were banned around the anniversary of the killings. They included simple terms such as "天安门" (Tiananmen Square) and "坦克人" (Tank man), but also featured a variety of references to dates, including "八9六4" (89 6 4) and 八九運動 (1989 movement). Last year, for the 25th anniversary of event, China blocked all access to Google.
In this context, Taylor Swift's plan to sell clothing featuring both "1989" and "TS" in large letters may make things a little awkward, even if her intentions were innocent enough: The references appear to be to her birth date and her name, respectively.
So far, most of her Chinese fans appear to be more interested in her music than any political inferences, and the Chinese government hasn't blocked her album or her tour. But many in China are aware of the significance of the date, and for authorities it may raise an uncomfortable question -- could Taylor Swift merchandise unwittingly become the uniform of Chinese dissidents?
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