Once a upon a time, people living in China could legally watch some of the most popular American television shows online for free. That was last week.
Over the last half decade or so, Chinese online video sharing websites have been slowly but surely bringing in American, British and Korean television shows over to China for Chinese audiences. These companies, iQiyi, Sohu, Sina and many others pay foreign production/holding/entertainment companies and studios for the rights to bring the shows to China. The shows are then hosted on a video sharing website for users to watch online for free (with ads).
On April 27, it was announced that the Chinese video-sharing websites have received an order to take down some of their content. Four major shows originating from the US were singled out in the take down: The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, NCIS and The Practice. They have since been taken down from the sites. Viewers that wanted to watch these videos were greeted with a message roughly saying, "This Video Has Been Removed For Government Reasons".
Now, all of this isn't exactly out of the blue. In late March, the Chinese government, through the State Administration For Press Publication, Radio, Film and Television, came out with a statement detailing that foreign-produced content coming into China needs to be approved before it can be aired. The language of the statement was geared towards online content as well, despite SAPPRFT not being in charge of the internet. In fact, in China, there are multiple government organs that are "in charge" of the internet.
Originally, foreign television content as well as some films were allowed in China through "internal reviews" by the video hosting companies. Regular films and shows that make it to the television sets of Chinese families must be approved by the SAPPRFT. An example of how this all works would be The Walking Dead and World War Z. The Walking Dead, despite its subject matter, was available for viewing while World War Z was barred from the cinemas.
What's strange now is that the government hasn't given any reason for taking down of these shows, nor has it given a clear verdict on what other shows will be taken down. Over the last month, China's pushed forth with their effort to "clean up" the internet. Chinese internet giant Sina, which operates the popular twitter-like microblog Weibo, was targeted by authorities for violating the state regulations on pornography. The government has threatened to take Sina's various internet business licenses, prompting Sina to constantly apologise publicly for their "oversight".
Needless to say, the removal of such popular shows has drawn backlash from Chinese netizens. The Big Bang Theory in particular has a really big following in China. Keep in mind though that Western television fans are still a relatively small thing in the scope of all things China, but huge when taking into account the sheer numbers of the country.
Fans of Western TV shows have taken to popular message boards and social media outlets to voice their anger over the decision.
Sohu Message Boards
凱158在搜狐 What's left to watch? Crappy Anti-Japanese dramas?
Summer[搜狐安徽省网友] What's going on recently? Why is everything so tight [in regards to security]?
NetEase Message Boards
zuluoxuan200[网易江苏省南京市网友] Why not just get rid of terrible Anti-Japanese dramas, stupid Korean dramas, and pointless period dramas while they're at it?
wangeastplu[网易江苏省南京市网友]：Everyone knows that in the information age, restricting information is useless. [The censors] must be at their wits end if this is what they're doing.
在陆地上行走的的宥儿 Let's just go abroad and watch this!
夏日阁楼 I never thought I was pitiful, but woe is me, woe is the Chinese, they don't even let us watch The Big Bang Theory!
C. Han, a member of the Chinese media, who asked we use his initial, says that this generation of online viewers have been the first in China to be able to legally watch Western-produced content on a week to week basis.
"When we used to watch western dramas, we had to either download everything or buy pirated discs," said C. "Shows like The Big Bang Theory were the first shows that we could actually follow and grow invested in with everyone watching being on the same page."
C says that the removal of these shows from popular streaming sites is a regression of sorts. He says that it might prompt fans to go back to downloading or buying illegal copies of the shows, which is something China's been trying to clamp down on for decades.
While the online reactions to the removal have been strong, media reactions have been... weird. The Chinese version of The Wall Street Journal speculates that the reason for the removal is that the American dramas depict a very US-centric way of life, something that the government doesn't want to propagate.
There has also been speculation that the whole removal of these shows is a ploy by China Central Television to remove competition from the field. Chinese media outlets, including the State Owned, are speculating that CCTV is secretly orchestrating the removal of popular shows from the internet in order to broadcast the same shows on their paid "premium" network.
CCTV's premium network currently broadcasts a severely neutered version of Game of Thrones. Which is just baffling, because the underlying themes and tones of GoT are probably things the Chinese government doesn't want its people to think about.
Whatever the case may be, the only losers right now are the Chinese people, and foreigners who crave a taste of home. Damn Hulu, blocking my VPN and all that... good thing there's still NetFlix.
传《大爆炸》已被央视引进 译制反三俗 [Sina News] 四部美剧因政策原因被中国视频网站下架 [Wall Street Journal China] China's Censors Clamp Down on Booming Internet Video Sector [Hollywood Reporter]