‘Friends’ Reunion: The One Where They Get Censored in China

In China, the reunion episode of “Friends” was all about grudges.

The problem wasn’t “Friends,” but the friends of “Friends.”

Appearances by Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and the K-pop group BTS were dropped from different versions of the much-anticipated special when they streamed on Thursday on three Chinese video platforms.

Each missing cameo involved a star or group that had been a past target of Beijing’s ire, and fans suspected the show was stuck in censorship gear.

Lady Gaga has been verboten in China since she met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, in 2016. Justin Bieber’s troubles with China began in 2014, when he posted a photo from the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead, including war criminals from World War II. And the South Korean music group BTS neglected last year to mention the sacrifice of China’s troops when recalling the pain of the Korean War — even though the troops fought on the side of North Korea.

One missing clip was a duet between Lady Gaga and Lisa Kudrow as they sang her character Phoebe’s jingle, “Smelly Cat.” Also missing in the Chinese broadcasts were recollections from BTS members of watching the show when they were younger and an appearance by Mr. Bieber dressed as “Spudnik,” as David Schwimmer’s character did in an episode.

The special, which premiered on Thursday on HBO Max in the United States, brought the cast of the 1990s sitcom back together for reminiscences and performances. It was a major viewing event in China, where the show is beloved, in part by a millennial generation that grew up watching it on DVD and often used it to learn English. The sitcom was so popular that in major Chinese cities, it spawned look-alike fan cafes of the show’s coffee shop, Central Perk.

Some fan accounts on social media noted that the lengths of each version of the special varied, depending on which streaming site users watched it, a likely indication that the online video platforms had cut the show on their own to avoid any potential grief with China’s watchful internet regulator.

The incident is the second reminder in a week of the power China wields over Hollywood stars and Beijing’s willingness to cut celebrities from its massive market if they diverge from its political dogma. This week, John Cena, the professional wrestler and a star of the newest “Fast and Furious” movie, apologized after he referred to Taiwan as a country in an interview. China considers the self-ruled island to be a part of its territory.

Faced with being cut off from business in China, and its valuable box office, most celebrities have tried to stay away from sensitive subjects in China, like Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang and protests in Hong Kong.

On Chinese social media, nostalgia for “Friends” overwhelmed discussion of the censorship on Friday. Still, some grumbled.

“This is insane, if you introduce the show to China, don’t cut the scene. If you have to cut it, then don’t introduce it. What’s the point of eating this castrated content?” wrote one fan.

Others were happy to take a break from celebrities they believed had insulted China.

“It’s good to cut it. All the cut parts are done by entertainers who insulted China. Don’t let some rat feces spoil the whole pot of congee,” wrote one.

“For these entertainers who insulted China and support independence for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet, it’s natural to cut their parts,” added another.

Lin Qiqing contributed research.

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