Squid Game sees booming piracy in China, where Netflix is unavailable, amid Beijing’s crackdown on unlicensed content
- Squid Game has become one of the most popular topics online in China, where people share links to streaming and file-sharing sites to access the show
- Netflix is not available in China, and the South Korean drama’s violence makes it unlikely that censors would allow it on another video-streaming platform
After becoming a global pop culture sensation, the South Korean Netflix show Squid Game is on track to become the US-based streamer’s biggest hit, even in China, where the show has not been officially released because of Beijing’s strict content licensing rules.
While Netflix has no direct access to Chinese consumers and no mainland company has acquired the rights to broadcast Squid Game, topics related to the battle royale horror drama, which is based around a last-man-standing contest à la Hunger Games, have been trending on nearly every major domestic social media platform over the past three weeks.
Netflix globally released all nine episodes of the first season on September 17, but its graphic displays of violence and nudity make it unlikely to pass Chinese censors.
As Chinese consumers have become accustomed to hunting for unreleased content, many viewers turned to myriad unofficial streaming sites and file-sharing services to watch the videos with Chinese subtitles ripped directly from Netflix.
Piracy of the show has grown so large that Jang Ha-sung, South Korea’s ambassador to China, lamented during a congressional meeting in Seoul on Wednesday that Squid Game was being streamed on more than 60 illegal Chinese websites, according to a report by Yonhap News Agency. Jang said he has requested that Chinese authorities take action.
On microblogging platform Weibo, posts and comments with the hashtag #SquidGame have recorded nearly 2 billion views as of Thursday. Last Wednesday, the hashtag became the fifth most popular topic on Weibo’s hot search chart.
“Squid Game is what everybody is talking about now. But this kind of show will never make it past Chinese censors,” wrote one Weibo user. “So I thank our fellow Weibo users for sharing information about where I can watch the show.”
Torrents related to the show had an average of more than 30,000 daily peers – people downloading and sharing the files – between September 18 and October 5, according to data from iknowwhatyoudownload.com. It is currently the most downloaded show in China, according to the website, as it is in several other regions, including Hong Kong.
Squid Game’s sensational popularity defies recent efforts from Beijing to stamp out any unlicensed and uncensored content, especially if it is deemed ideologically inappropriate, unhealthy, or violent. Even shows and films that do get official releases in the country may be required to cut out several minutes worth of content that censors find disagreeable.
While Netflix released Squid Game with traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles, many shows blocked in China have traditionally relied on volunteer translators who upload their own subtitles to the internet. The most popular of these groups is Renren Yingshi, which operates YYeTs.com and has tens of millions of followers around the world.
Lost in translation? Squid Game subtitles disappoint some Korean speakers
The raid sent shock waves through the Chinese internet, leading many to turn to alternative sites and grass-roots translation groups to continue to access unapproved foreign shows.
Not even officially sanctioned shows are always in the clear. Last month, regulators removed the popular Japanese kids show Ultraman Tiga from multiple video platforms, citing violent content. It resulted in widespread controversy among fans questioning how far the country’s censors should go.
In response, China‘s National Radio and Television Administration issued a statement saying content providers should “resolutely resist bad plots” and only broadcast “excellent cartoons with healthy content that promotes truth, goodness and beauty”. Broadcasters should not show cartoons that contain violence, blood or pornographic content, the agency added.
Many Ultraman Tiga episodes have since returned to streaming platforms.
Squid Game is not a cartoon, but it likely goes beyond what Chinese censors will tolerate. The show follows 456 debtors who are locked up on an island, where they play a series of deadly children’s games and the winner gets to take home US$38 million in cash. In the background, a number of decadent, ultra-rich tycoons bet on the players as if they were modern gladiators.
As is typical of the battle royale genre, the losers either die during the games or are executed at the conclusion of each round.
As of Thursday, there were still a number of Chinese websites and apps that had Squid Game available to stream or download. Richard Yang, a postgraduate student in Xian, said that he accessed the show from an app called Hanju TV, meaning Korean Drama TV.
“People find access to the show via different ‘resource sites’ and Weibo,” he said.