The world watched with baited-breath this week as an eight-year odyssey drew to a close and it finally became clear who had won the Iron Throne of Westeros.
Well, that is, the world apart from China. There, fans of Game of Thrones were furious when the series finale failed to appear on Tencent Video. In place of the smash-hit series from HBO there was only a message advising of “transmission medium problems”.
Subscribers to Tencent’s premium video streaming service were soon demanding refunds of their Rmb20 ($2.89) monthly fee. Others threatened to cancel their accounts and delete the app entirely. One complainant was especially vexed after taking a day off work to watch the last episode. “I specially took a vacation today!” he fumed.
In a statement to CNN, HBO said it had “no issue with content delivery” and a spokesperson for the company told the Wall Street Journal that Tencent had been restricted from airing the series finale by the Chinese government due to the ongoing trade war. Nor was Game of Thrones the only casualty of the current tensions in Sino-US relations. The release of another new TV drama that tells the story of a father following his son to college in the US to keep an eye on him as he studies has also been pushed back indefinitely. Over the Sea I Come to You, which was scheduled to debut last Sunday on Dragon Satellite TV and Zhejiang Satellite TV, was yanked from the schedule at the last minute without explanation. Network executives moved up actress-model Angelababy’s new drama My True Friend as a replacement.
Industry insiders reckon the sudden change is connected to the trade row, probably because the show promotes the benefits of a US education, a major ‘export’ earner for American colleges. Aside from highlighting life at US universities, the show also intended to explore how a traditional Chinese family navigates its way through white, middle-class America, with most of the filming taking place in the US.
“It is probably a blessing in disguise to delay the release of Over the Sea I Come to You since Sino-American relations are probably the worst in a decade. The TV series will likely attract a lot of criticism over how it portrays the US,” one netizen wrote.
Meanwhile, network executives have been prioritising more patriotic dramas on the small screen. Last week, state-run broadcaster CCTV aired classic war dramas like Heroic Sons and Daughters (1964) and Battle on Shangganling Mountain (1956). Both films portray the Korean War – when China’s poorly equipped troops faced the technologically superior US-led UN forces for four long years in the 1950s.
“We are not afraid of the US, not in the past, not today. Thumbs-up to CCTV,” commented one viewer of the programming choice, in a post that earned hundreds of likes.
Commentators also reckon that it won’t be long before a broader boycott of American products begins. “The entertainment industry is usually the leader of public opinion. So with the withdrawal of the TV show, who knows what’s next. Maybe celebrities will start boycotting American brands? Stop wearing American apparel and cosmetics and boycott other US products?” speculated NetEase. “If the tension escalates, it could really affect the entertainment industry for both countries. One can only imagine what’s going to happen to Hollywood blockbusters and American TV dramas.”
The worsening mood between the two superpowers has already had an impact on spending on higher education in the US, partly because American security agencies are concerned that Chinese students might be spies out to steal American intellectual property.
Last week Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reported that of out of 707 students awarded places at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through its early admissions programme, not one came from a school in China.
Other newspapers have queried whether this really indicates an implicit ban on Chinese applicants, saying that students from China have good exam scores but that they lack the softer skills that interest university recruiters, such as leadership and communication.
Another possible factor is that more Chinese children are being sent abroad to study at a younger age. As graduates from US high schools, they are taking places that might once have gone to applicants from schools in China. In fact, there were five places awarded to Chinese nationals at MIT this year, but they were all granted to students graduating from American high schools.
The news came at a time when the US has been reviewing restrictions on visas for Chinese students and visiting scholars. The Financial Times even reported recently that the White House was debating proposals to stop all Chinese nationals from studying at US universities. “Amid espionage fears, visa rules for Chinese students of science and technology have tightened. FBI agents have quizzed scholars visiting from Chinese state-back think tanks about government-links, and cancelled the visas of some. Rather than China becoming more Western, America is becoming more Chinese,” The Economist added grimly.
American colleges are still the top destination for students from China who want to study overseas, who now account for one-third of the foreign undergraduates and graduate students in the US. Even lesser-known schools like the University of Iowa saw Chinese enrolments rise five-fold between 2007 and 2015. However, that has started to change since Donald Trump’s election and the deepening of Sino-US differences. The Economist notes that the University of Iowa has since seen a 39% drop in Chinese enrolments.
Ironically, Trump’s policies may be choking off one of America’s most successful ‘exports’ to China: its elite education system.
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