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Although Stranger Things Season 3 is as American as it gets, Chinese TV fans also seem to adore the show… once they can access it. (Picture: Netflix)

Stranger Things fans in China shocked by US government’s ignorance in the show

With the Soviet Union hiding out in the American heartland, one viewer sees the Mind Flayer as a metaphor for communism

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

Stranger Things Season 3 is taking the world by storm, and China is no exception. Many viewers in China are finding ways to binge the show even though Netflix is not officially available in the country.

Whether using BitTorrent or VPNs, hundreds of thousands of fans in China have been watching the Duffer Brothers’ supernatural saga/80s nostalgic romp since its very first season. While season 3 has been pulling in overwhelmingly positive reviews in China so far, many think the show’s portrayal of the US government is just too dumb to be believable.

Some reactions are even more ideological: At least one person sees the Mind Flayer as a metaphor for communism. 

Check out Stranger Things Season 1 and 2 DVD sets on Amazon

(There will be spoilers ahead, so don’t go past the picture if you don’t want to know what happens in season 3!)

Although Stranger Things Season 3 is as American as it gets, Chinese TV fans also seem to adore the show… once they can access it. (Picture: Netflix)

Anyone familiar with Stranger Things should know what to expect by now, at least to some degree. We’re dealing with supernatural elements, conspiracy theories, alternate dimensions and, of course, monsters. And in season 3, the monsters really get to shine with a War of the Worlds-style, full-on monster outbreak.

Playing up its 80s nostalgia to maximum effect, the new season also leans hard on the Cold War angle. It’s premised on the idea that the Soviets have secretly built a massive (and I mean massive) lab under the new Starcourt mall in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. This secret lab is tasked with re-opening the gate to the Upside Down -- an alternate dimension where all the split-faced goo-monsters live.

While the American audience might already be familiar with the Russian invasion trope from movies like Red Dawn, Chinese viewers find it jarring that the Duffer Brothers had the nerve to depict the US as once infiltrated by hundreds of Soviet soldiers. Many Chinese viewers think that this story makes the US government look unbelievably bad.
“So the Soviet Union just smuggled a bunch of Russians into a town in the heartland of the US and built a huge underground facility. If this project could exist, the US security forces are trash,” one person wrote on Zhihu.

Zhihu, where people in China go to ask questions and get answers

Many others found this plot point unbelievable, as well. On the other hand, some felt that it was amusing given how China and its propaganda machine tries to make the country look unassailable to the rest of the world in its own media.

Even if the US government looks inept in the show, though, the Soviets are still the true villains (besides the actual monsters, of course). But some Chinese fans think the show went a bit too far in reviling the Soviet Union.

“Their vilification of the Soviet Union knows no bounds,” one netizen wrote on Zhihu.
Sure, US-Soviet tensions during the Cold War were never a secret. But some Chinese fans still find the demonization of the Soviet Union to be unimaginative, similar to how Chinese TV shows frequently depict fighting the Japanese in WWII period dramas. By at least one count from 2013, this genre made up 30% of Chinese primetime TV.

“We didn’t invent all those crazy shows about fighting the Japanese,” one Zhihu commenter wrote. “We just learned it from the Americans.”

At least one fan wasn’t so concerned with the Soviet-bashing. Instead, the person offered a creative interpretation of the Cold War ethos that anchors season 3.

“I think the monster in season 3 is actually communism and how it has very concentrated power at the top. It is representative of America’s fear of communism in the 80s,” a Zhihu user posted.

The person also likened the Mind Flayer’s ability to kill the will of its victims and take over their minds to totalitarianism and brainwashing propaganda.

Even though some online responses might sound like harsh criticism or overinterpretation, Stranger Things still has a surprising number of fans in China for a show deliberately created as a nostalgia kick for those grew up in 1980s America.

The numbers don’t lie. On Douban, China’s top movie and TV show rating site, the show’s first and second seasons both have ratings of 8.8/10 based on more than 100,000 and 60,000 reviews respectively.
And even though it’s still early, fans appear to be loving season 3 just as much, with the season currently sitting at an 8.9 on Douban. (And just so you have an idea of what a more ridiculed season of TV might expect to get, the final season of Game of Thrones has a 6.2 rating.)
Despite Stranger Things’ huge popularity, the show, with its entire narrative focused on supernatural elements, remains unlikely to be imported to China for official release given the country’s continued crusade against superstition.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.