Snapshot: Implications of Peppa Pig censorship in China

Popular cartoon Peppa Pig has been removed from a leading Chinese short video website after it became an unlikely icon of the shehuiren ‘streetwise’ counterculture. Faced with unpredictable censorship, what should foreign media and entertainment companies in China do?

Peppa Pig Cartoon

EVENT

British-created and Canadian-owned cartoon Peppa Pig has been removed from Douyin, a leading Chinese short video-sharing app with powerful editing capabilities, amid state media claims that the character is being used subversively by third parties and become a countercultural ‘meme’ for Chinese web users. The #PeppaPig hashtag was removed from Douyin and searches for ‘Peppa Pig’ produced no results.

CONTEXT

Previously popular with children, Peppa Pig went viral among young people in late 2017, becoming an icon of the shehuiren subculture in China. Literally meaning ‘society person’, shehuiren defines a to ‘streetwise’ or ‘gangster’ counterculture.

‘They are unruly slackers roaming around, and the antithesis of the young generation the Party tries to cultivate.’

‘It refers to people who run counter to the mainstream value and are usually poorly educated with no stable job,’ reported the Global Times state newspaper.

‘They are unruly slackers roaming around, and the antithesis of the young generation the Party tries to cultivate.’

Peppa Pig’s unlikely iconic status among shehuiren is seen in spoof video clips, emojis, clothing and accessories and tattoos – both real and fake.

The crackdown is indirectly linked to a wider crackdown on online content that Beijing deems ‘vulgar or pornographic’, and which does not promote socialist values and traditional Chinese culture. Microblogs such as Sino Weibo have removed content in recent months.

Some analysts have said that Douyin is attempting to pre-empt government action and remove content they think the government may deem suspect before they are compelled to do so and face penalties.

Meanwhile, Chinese mobile app, Suishoupai has launched its own cute porcine character ‘Little Pig Dodo’, which the Sina Weibo microblog has widely publicised.

Beijing is sensitive to comical depictions that could be deemed subversive, in the past censoring references to Winnie the Pooh after memes compared the honey-loving cartoon bear to President Xi Jinping. In 2015, a meme of Xi standing up through the roof of a parade car paired with a Winnie the Pooh toy car was reportedly China’s most censored photograph.

ANALYSIS

Foreign media companies have limited options for avoiding such censorship without compromising the integrity of their brand.

Given that China has more than 770 million online users, it is challenging for foreign companies to monitor how their media property is used online. They are advised to engage a consultancy well-versed in China’s political and operating environment to monitor their products online. Particular attention should be paid to platforms where recent government censorship efforts have been targeted.

They should alert product managers if there are indications that their brands are being used by third parties in ways that could invite official censorship or infringe intellectual property.
This allows the company to factor the political risk into their internal forecasts more accurately, to notify shareholders and to ensure that their intellectual property is not being used unlawfully.

However, foreign companies must use the legal system sensitively given the global reputational risk.

Marketing and communications strategies in China should avoid idiosyncratic, viral or ‘surrealist’ campaigns, and instead adopt a more traditional approach that unambiguously targets their core demographic.

Firms seeking to build up or strengthen their brand in China could reiterate their commitment to operations on the mainland.

In April, Walt Disney issued a statement emphasising its local connection in China and plans to expand its Shanghai Disney Resort. Peppa Pig owner, Canadian media company Entertainment One, plans to open a Peppa Pig theme park in 2019, during the Year of the Pig.

Foreign media companies should also demonstrate that they have plans in place to monitor the production and sales of official merchandise. Official media statements have expressed concern about the unchecked growth of manufacturers making counterfeit Peppa Pig products, which they believe have contributed to the subculture.

 

Back