Most viewers thought it was a joke. On the May 2 episode of CBS’ “The Good Fight,” the CEO of ChumHum—a fictional Google-like company—decided to build China a customized search engine called Praying Mantis.
Much like Google’s real-life customized search engine, Project Dragonfly, Praying Mantis would allow the Chinese government to censor search results. Defending his decision to build the search engine, ChumHum’s CEO said, “It’s the Chinese market. You need to toe the line, or you get frozen out.” Then, the scene cut to a black screen with five words scrawled across it:
“CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT”
The message remained on the screen for almost nine seconds. Most people thought this was a humorous attempt to drive home the message from the previous scene, but it wasn’t. CBS actually censored its own show.
That black screen replaced a short musical interlude of the type that “The Good Fight” frequently runs. This interlude was supposed to feature lyrics poking fun at things the Chinese government censors zero in on—images of Winnie the Pooh, because of the cartoon’s likeness to Xi Jinping, or the letter “N” because it might be a coded reference to the elimination of Presidential term limits.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum reported that the nine-second placard was actually a compromise between CBS executives and the show’s co-creators, Robert and Michelle King. Initially, CBS executives approved the song’s lyrics, but two weeks before the segment aired, something spooked them, and they got cold feet. In response, the Kings threatened to quit, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and they compromised.
So what spooked CBS? Maybe they’re scared of being “frozen out” themselves. China has one of the largest and fastest growing streaming television audiences in the world. Plus, Chinese viewers love American television dramas.
But just because the people want it, doesn’t mean the Chinese government will let them have it. In the last five years, Chinese regulators have tightened their grip on streaming television and blacklisted shows featuring “excessive entertainment,” meaning too much violence, superstition, and scandal. Shows that criticize China can also wind up on the blacklist. “The Good Fight”’s predecessor, “The Good Wife,” was one of those and CBS probably doesn’t want to find themselves in that situation again.
However, CBS’ public statements explaining the censorship have nothing to do with the Chinese market. Instead, CBS executives are worried that when they visit China, the government may hold them accountable for producing critical television shows and retaliate.
For decades, China has combated critical speech by retaliating against the speaker, especially their own citizens. Now, as China invests more and more in international businesses, they’re finding it easier to retaliate against foreigners as well.
In 2018, Canadian authorities arrested the CFO of Huawei—one of China’s largest companies—for conspiring to defraud banks. China retaliated by arresting two Canadian men visiting China who had nothing to do with the Huawei incident.
It’s understandable that CBS executives visiting China might feel like they’re one poorly worded presidential tweet away from being locked up. Come to think of it; I was actually hoping to visit Bejing sometime next year. Maybe I shouldn’t…
THE AUTHOR HAS CENSORED THE REMAINDER OF THIS CONTENT
Matthew Billy is the host of Bleeped.org, a podcast about censorship and the people who stand up to it. He's worked in radio/podcasting since 2003. In 2016 his podcast, "Between the Liner Notes," won the Newhouse School of Public Communications' Mirror Award for Best Single Story—Radio, Television, Cable or Online Broadcast Media for its episode about the founding of MTV.