NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Brands often become de facto ambassadors for their home country. Sometimes they become the opposite. Animated series “South Park” seems to have earned itself a ban in China after creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone poked fun at their industry’s willingness to self-censor, and then followed up with a sarcastic apology. Episodes of the show were inaccessible online in the People’s Republic, Reuters reported on Tuesday. That could ping back on Parker and Stone’s patrons at U.S. media giant Viacom – but earns the company some kudos in the meantime.
Parker and Stone tweeted their mea culpa for the highly irreverent episode “Band in China” on Monday by invoking President Xi Jinping, praising his grip on the country with “Long live the Great Communist Party of China!” and adding: “we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts.” It’s a comic exaggeration of what some other brands have implied in earnest, amid heightened tensions over violent demonstrations in Hong Kong. The general manager of the National Basketball Association team the Houston Rockets, jeweler Tiffany & Co and sneaker maker Vans have all walked back fairly innocuous remarks and marketing campaigns for fear of a Chinese backlash.
It’s nothing new if companies protect commercial interests rather than speaking truth to power. Viacom, which owns the production company behind “South Park,” has reason to be concerned. As the operator of Paramount Pictures it is already subject to the whims of Chinese censors. Only 34 foreign films are allowed annually in a market that topped the international box office with $9 billion in ticket sales in 2018, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Last year, Viacom subsidiary Nickelodeon also inked a deal to open a theme park inside a giant mall in the city of Chongqing.
For now though, the $9.5 billion Viacom can at least bask in being one of the few big companies to push the envelope with such panache. Aside from putting some Chinese technology companies and organizations on a blacklist on Monday, the U.S. government too has been quiet on the issue of Chinese censorship and human rights abuses. Intentionally or not, Viacom just got a supporting role in an unfolding global drama.
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