China Tightens Censorship of Online Dramas

  • Move follows recent removal of popular web series with gay and transgender themes
  • Online programming will be subject to the same type of pre-approval and censorship as regular television
  • Shows that generate “heated discussion” online to draw extra scrutiny from authorities

Chinese censorship of online web dramas is tightening, bringing oversight of the rapidly growing sector closer in line with rules governing television and film, regulators announced Saturday.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) said online dramas—capable of reaching the nearly 700 million Chinese Internet users—would henceforward be treated the same way as “offline” TV dramas.

According to local media reports, Li Jingsheng, head of the regulator’s television management division, told those gathered an annual TV industry meeting that shows that generate “heated discussion” online will attract extra scrutiny from authorities.

In addition, staff in charge of censorship for the country’s online video streaming sites, such as Youku Tudou and iQiyi, will now be trained and examined by SAPPRFT, Li said, according to the reports.

Li also indicated that some online dramas will now have to be approved before being streamed online, a break from the previous arrangement whereby the shows have been reviewed by authorities only after their release.

The move follows the removal this week of a popular gay-themed drama, “Addicted” (also known as “Heroin”) from the country’s major video streaming websites.

In January, the country’s censors took down a number of other popular web dramas including “Go Princess Go,” a gender-bending drama in which a man travels back in time to become the wife of a crown prince (trailer below.)

iQiyi’s “The Lost Tomb” accumulated over 2.8 billion views before authorities removed it from websites. Other shows pulled include iQiyi’s “Evil Minds,” and Tencent’s “Darker” and “Blind Spot.”

Strict guidelines set out by SAPPRFT in 2009 forbid the use of content that is “superstitious,” “disruptive to Chinese cultural tradition,” or “forbidden by related laws and regulations.”

Internet users were quick to attack the rule changes on Chinese social media.

“Would SAPPRFT dare to launch their own Weibo account?” one netizen asked. “I swear, Chinese netizens will make you even more famous than the director of the CCTV annual Spring Festival Gala!”

“There’s a tomb in my heart where the leaders of SAPPRFT live,” wrote another.

China’s online video streaming industry is highly fragmented, with five major players and numerous other competitors locked in a desperate scramble for viewer attention.

Much like their counterparts in the West such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, Chinese video sites like (formerly known as and, have been directing more of their resources toward original programming, often with a more risqué flavor than what is found on traditional TV.

Some Chinese web dramas have made the leap from online to the silver screen as local studios bet that their built-in fan base will translate into box office success.

Internet “micro-movie” “Old Boys” made over $322.3 million at the box office after Youku Tudou took it to cinemas. But the transition from online to cinema screens is not always supported by fans. When low-budget comedy Surprise made it to the big screen in December, it was hit with a barrage of negative ratings on popular film and culture website Douban.

Online dramas and comedies are also a reliable proving ground for acting talent, with many up and coming stars first cutting their teeth online before making the leap to film.

Lu Zhengyu, a post-80s actor and director who made his name directing and starring in the offbeat online comedy on Youku Tudou, starred in his protégé Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid.

—Additional reporting by Skye Tan