Surprising Things Banned in China
China is one of the most-visited countries in the world, a cultural marvel where you can tour ancient grottoes, scale soaring mountains and eat some of the best street food on the planet. A trip to the country is a wonderful idea — but it's also good to know in advance about some popular items the world's most populous country has banned.
From books to TV shows to certain kinds of plants, the Chinese government’s roster of forbidden items and activities is surprisingly robust. Even some celebrities (sorry, Justin Bieber!) can’t set foot there.
Here are some things Westerners might not know are banned in China.
Violent Video Games
In April 2019, China banned video games focused on three of the most popular video-game tropes: violence, sex and gambling.
Popular titles on the blacklist include the uber-gory Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Not all hope is lost for gamers, though; some sneaky online vendors are trying to bypass the ban on these games by disguising them with (hilariously bad) hand-drawn cover art.
Also not allowed? Games showing the Chinese government in a negative light, or touching on the country's less-than-savory imperial history.
Since China is home to 20 percent of the global population, it's expected that most video-game developers will fall in line to censor aspects of their games and abide by the strict regulations.
Random TV Shows
Don’t expect to stream some of your favorite shows in China. Actually, nix Netflix from your plans altogether.
The video-streaming service is currently blocked from Chinese IP addresses. Instead, Chinese people must go to Chinese-owned streaming sites like Sohu TV, iQiyi and Youku.
Back in 2014, Chinese government regulators also yanked some popular American TV shows off Chinese streaming services, including “NCIS,” “Big Bang Theory” and “The Good Wife.” The decision, which caused an uproar from TV fans, was never explained and seemed arbitrary, especially since far more salacious shows like “House of Cards” remained available to watch.
TV programs and other entertainment in China are regulated by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. The administration has made other unpopular decisions, like banning reality television shows from featuring children of celebrities. The ban caused the cancellation of a popular Chinese reality show called “Where Are We Going, Dad?”
From musicians to actors, there is an entire list of A-listers who can’t step foot in China.
In 2017, Justin Bieber was reportedly banned from performing in the country due to his distasteful antics. "Justin Bieber is a gifted singer,” the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture stated. “But in order to maintain order in the Chinese market and purify the Chinese performance environment, it is not suitable to bring in badly behaved entertainers.” Chinese officials were reportedly especially offended when, during a past visit, Bieber was carried up the Great Wall by his bodyguards.
Actor Brad Pitt was unable to step foot in the country for nearly 20 years because of his work in the film “Seven Years in Tibet.” (He visited China in 2014 with Angelina Jolie, though, a sign that this ban was lifted by regulators.)
Selena Gomez was also banned due to content related to Tibet. A photo was posted on Instagram of the musician and the Dalai Lama in 2016, which caused the Chinese government to block her entry to the country for a concert tour.
When you think of the majestic celebration that is the Chinese New Year, fireworks might be one of the first things that comes to mind. Fireworks are closely associated with China, likely even originating in the country sometime between 600 and 900 AD.
But due to overpopulation and concerns about air pollution, the Chinese are now seeing fewer lights in the sky during those New Year celebrations. Dozens of large cities across China banned setting off fireworks to fight toxic air pollution. Other cities reduced the number of fireworks that can be shot off into the skies.
Warnings were issued to people in Beijing by media and text message, advising them to refrain from lighting fireworks. Some businesses and people say the ban is threatening a centuries-old tradition.
Like many places across the world, China has banned multiple books that touch on themes like government protest and sexuality. But some banned books in China are downright confusing.
In 1965, the country banned Dr. Seuss’ children’s book “Green Eggs and Ham” because they said it portrayed themes of Marxism. The ban was lifted when the author died in 1991. Other banned books include “The Tiananmen Papers,” because of its depiction of the Chinese government.
Many other banned books are by daring Chinese authors — including Jung Chang, Nien Cheng, Mian Mian and Su Tong — who have touched on topics like drugs and rebellious behavior. There are also certain topics, like the Tibetan freedom struggle, that are explicitly forbidden from being the subject of books.
You won’t find too many slot machines in China. Gambling, including casino-like establishments, are illegal across the mainland.
Additionally, the Chinese Communist tourism department made a list of nine things that could land Chinese citizens traveling abroad on a “blacklist” barring them from future travel for an extended period of time. That list included gambling.
Plus, in 2017, regulators introduced new guidelines that prohibited Chinese businesses from investing in gambling abroad, on the grounds that the activity would “endanger national interests and security,” according to a Reuters report. Chinese investors have been known to build casinos in countries like Saipan and Laos instead.
Oh, and the government is cracking down on illegal online gambling rings.
It’s safe to say, then, that China is not a fan of gambling. But this doesn’t mean no one in the country engages in the illicit activity; illegal gambling via underground casinos and unofficial lotteries is relatively common.
After the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia inspired similar pro-democracy protests in China, the Chinese government censored the word “Jasmine” on the internet, and even banned the sale of jasmine flowers in shops and markets in some larger Chinese cities like Beijing.
Major news outlets reported that regulators took these steps to prevent revolts against the Chinese government. The jasmine flower doesn’t carry any other significant symbolic meaning that would cause it to be banned.
Santa Claus isn’t coming to every Chinese town.
In 2018, several cities, government organizations and schools cracked down on Christmas parties and related activities. The Guardian reported that the rules are less about Christianity, and more about promoting traditional Chinese culture.
Chinese citizens are allowed to practice five religions that are recognized by the government, and two of these, Catholicism and Protestantism, celebrate Christmas. But any religious activities — across all five accepted religions — cannot be practiced outside of sanctioned institutions like churches. These regulations are designed to promote secularity, as the Communist Party is officially atheist.
Interestingly, though, China continues to profit off the Western holiday; the country manufactures about four-fifths of the Christmas lights sold in the U.S.
Selling the Bible Online
Because most brick-and-mortar stores can not sell Bibles in China, online retailers had made it easier for people to purchase them via the internet instead.
In 2018, the Chinese government banned online sales of the Bible, prompting e-commerce sites like Taobao and Amazon China to cease all sales of the holy book. Other sites like Taobao, Jingdong and DangDang.com were also scrubbed of all Bible sales.
Because the Chinese Communist Party is technically atheist, the government is trying to regulate the growing religious scene. But there is one remaining loophole: Church bookstores are still allowed to sell the book.
Want to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole while in China? Bad news: As of May 2019, the country has banned the online encyclopedia in all languages. (Previously, only the Chinese language version of the site was banned.)
The Wikimedia Foundation was evidently caught flat-footed by news, writing in a statement, "We have not received notice or any indication as to why this current block is occurring and why now.”
It's speculated that Chinese officials want to suppress access to the site's diversity of opinions, which can contradict the party's values. Some also expressed suspicions about the timing of the ban, which went into effect shortly before the anniversary of the violent end of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4, 1989.
It looks like Chinese people won’t be traveling back in time…any time soon. Or at least not in movies.
Regulators randomly decided to ban the topic of time travel in all forms of entertainment, including TV shows and films, back in 2011. Government regulators reportedly didn’t like the idea of people going back in time and messing with historical events — especially events in China’s history.
“The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore,” the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television stated in its ruling.
Quoting the Foreign Press
You won’t see any Chinese news outlets quoting foreign press organizations like “The New York Times” or “The Washington Post.” The Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued rules in 2013 that stated all mainland media was forbidden from using information from foreign organizations without permission.
The ruling came down just after “The New York Times” won a Pulitzer for a piece about the secret wealth of Wen Jiabao, the sixth premier of the State Council of China. Reporters Without Borders, a journalism nonprofit, condemned the ruling — calling it a new level of censorship.
All Things Facebook
Facebook is one of many social-media networks that are banned by the Chinese government (Facebook’s popular messaging app WhatsApp was also banned in 2017.)
The platform was first shut down in 2009, after it was used by Xinjiang independence activists during Urumqi riots, and it's remained on the off-limits list since.
The Chinese government has also locked horns with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. A 2017 Chinese law requires online services to store user data in domestic servers — a move Zuckerberg isn’t in favor of because the government can access personal user data.
In March 2019, he hit back against the move, writing in a statement: “I believe one of the most important decisions we’ll make is where we’ll build data centers and store people’s sensitive data.”
Tweeting in China could get you locked up. The social-media network is banned, like Facebook, in the country.
Chinese activists have been using virtual private networks to get on the social-media site, resulting in an escalating number of detainments in Beijing, "The New York Times" reported. “If we give up Twitter, we are losing one of our last places to speak,” Wang Aizhong, a human-rights activist, told the Times.
Only 0.4 percent of Internet users in China are on Twitter, according to a study conducted by the Hertie School of Governance in Germany. The detainments worried some officials enough to send out a warning to young American travelers. The University of California, Davis emailed students traveling to China, advising them to avoid “unfavorable political statements or postings on social media.”
A partial iPhone ban hit China due to an ongoing legal fight between Apple Inc. and Qualcomm, a microchip-maker company. Sales of some iPhone models were halted because a Chinese court ruled that Apple had violated parts of Qualcomm’s intellectual property patent. But, experts noted, upholding the ban with internet sales would be challenging.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the Chinese threatened to ban Apple products. In 2014, reports stated that the government planned to stop Chinese officials from buying Apple products like iPads and Macbook laptops. The Telegraph reported that the government was afraid the American company would steal government secrets via the products.