YouTube star PewDiePie jumps on 'banned in China' bandwagon

One of the world's biggest YouTube stars claims to have fallen foul of China's censors for his comments on the Hong Kong protests and Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Swedish-born Felix Kjellberg, known to his millions of online fans as PewDiePie, released a video announcing his "ban" on Friday, adding himself to a growing list of foreign entertainment figures and companies swept up in recent controversy as China's government looks to control the narrative around Hong Kong's anti-government protests.

Apple, the NBA and gaming giant Blizzard have all faced pressure from Beijing for what it regards as interference in an internal matter.

"Well boys we did it, I'm banned from China, that's right, after I spoke about the Hong Kong protests and showed their leader as mocked for looking like Winnie-the-Pooh," Kjellberg said in his video on YouTube, the online video platform which is not available in China.

"I knew it was going to happen … obviously me talking about the Hong Kong memes was going to get me banned in China," he said, adding that searches for his handle on certain forums appeared "completely blank" on the mainland.

Kjellberg, 29, in a video uploaded last week, took a break from his regular video game chat and meme critiques to explain the Hong Kong protests to his more than 101 million subscribers.

"Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous state … I don't know exactly how it works, but China wants to change that and Hong Kong is like 'no we want to be free'," Kjellberg, wearing hot pink headphones, said in the video. He then described some of the recent examples of foreign companies falling foul of Beijing.

These included a major backlash against the NBA in response to a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of the protests.

Kjellberg also mentioned gaming company Blizzard, which stripped an e-sports champion of his prize money after he expressed support for Hong Kong. The company later reversed its decision, saying it was not influenced by China, while the NBA has defended Morey's right to free speech.

Both the NBA and Blizzard need "Chinese money", Kjellberg said in the video, which was watched over four million times, adding "it's important to remember" that companies "don't care about freedom" but rather needed to watch their bottom-lines.

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In contrast, the YouTuber praised the creators of the American satirical cartoon South Park whose recent episode "Band in China" mocked Chinese censorship as well as the companies which appease China by limiting their speech around sensitive topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

"China is like that one person on Twitter who can't take any criticism and just blocks everyone," Kjellberg said, adding "it's interesting you kind of forget the freedom you have, living in society".

It is unclear whether the YouTuber has been banned in China, or how popular he is in the country. A search of China's video platform Bilibili yields no results for him, although his videos can be found elsewhere on the site where they have been uploaded by users in China.

But his decision to announce his "ban" is an example of China's censorship practices moving beyond diplomatic and business conversations and further into mainstream global awareness.

Lokman Tsui, assistant professor at Chinese University's journalism school in Hong Kong, said recent censorship and pressure involving popular entertainment may be having an impact on public opinion of China outside its borders.

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"The world is starting to see China as a bully, not just bullying people inside its own country, but now also increasingly companies and individuals and governments around the world," Tsui said.

Other recent examples of companies bowing to pressure from China include a decision by Apple to remove an app that allowed protesters to track the Hong Kong police, and jeweller Tiffany, which took down an ad campaign that appeared to allude to protest iconography.

These incidents are indicative of China tightening its grip on speech at a particularly sensitive political moment, and shows how their interest in control "is spilling over to the entire world", Tsui said. "What you see now is that this is no longer just regulating the internet or speech inside China, it's regulating speech about China, across borders."

PewDiePie linked his own ban to another announcement made earlier this month by superstar German DJ Zedd, who wrote on Twitter that he was "permanently banned from China" for liking a South Park tweet about its "Band in China" episode. Zedd responded by tweeting "welcome to the club" to Kjellberg on Sunday.

But the extent of censorship that is being exerted on either entertainer is unclear, as China's information control ranges from deleting one-off comments or posts deemed contrary to China's speech regulations, to systematically blocking the use of certain words, websites or entire platforms, like Twitter, YouTube and its parent Google, and Facebook. Artists like Justin Bieber have also been banned from performing in the country.

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Last year the entire HBO website was blocked in China after comedian John Oliver dedicated an episode to a critique of Xi Jinping, which also included references to Winnie-the-Pooh.

Rather than projecting an image of strength, such instances "communicate weakness", according to Michael Jensen, associate professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in Australia.

"[Intolerance of opposing views] suggests they are afraid of that conversation and what it might reveal about the intellectual weakness of their position," he said, referring to the Hong Kong protests.

The extent to which bans on foreign entertainers who are only on platforms like YouTube have an impact in China may be limited, according to Kwong Ying-ho, a visiting fellow in the department of public policy at City University of Hong Kong.

Such censorship would only be relevant, or even noticed, by a young, educated minority equipped with the technology and knowledge to jump China's firewall using virtual private networks.

"Most Chinese citizens only access platforms like Bilibili and will not use a VPN," he said. "In general, they may not even know there is something called YouTube. "

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.