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Hopping the firewall and finding success: The story of Squid Game in China

Crackdowns in China seemed to be happening on a regular basis throughout 2021. In the education industry in China, for example, a new regulation has banned profit tutoring. The entertainment industry in China in particular was also affected. However, that did not affect the world-famous South Korean TV series – Squid Game, from reaching China. According to a report by Korea JoongAng Daily, there were 1.7 billion mentions about Squid Game as of October 4th, 2021 on the Twitter-like platform Weibo. However, as of December 20th, 2021, Squid Game in China can’t be searched on Weibo or Taobao, although some content uploaded by users on TikTok is still available.

Source: Weibo (left), Taobao (right), Empty pages are shown when searching ‘Squid Game’ in China
Source: TikTok, video recreating scene from Squid Game (left and center-left), Mr. Beast’s live Squid Game (right and center-right)

How do people watch Squid Game in China, where Netflix is banned?

Although the Great Firewall of China has blocked a wide range of global internet services including Netflix, Facebook, and Instagram, that did not stop viewers from watching Squid Game in China. The TV series had been popular among users who turned to Virtual Private Network (VPN), unofficial streaming services, and file-sharing to watch the series.

There are low chances that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will authorize the streaming of Squid Game in China. Throughout 2021, they have been regulating content more strictly that does not abide by their established guidelines, including graphic violence and LGBTQ+ storylines. Squid Game was no exemption, but the government has been pushing efforts to “clean up the Internet” – by restoring some traditional values like those based on Confucianism.

What are some of the top products related to Squid Game that people in China are obsessed about?

As Squid Game in China rose in popularity, so has the merchandise related to the TV series. The most popular include dalgona, the numbered green tracksuits, and the pink uniforms.

Dalgona (蜂窩糖in Chinese) is a street snack famous in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a candy made from sugar and baking soda. As a result of the rise in popularity of Squid Game in China, stores have joined the “dalgona trend” by organizing Squid Game-themed events. In Shanghai, an eatery hung signs advertising the challenge to attract customers. Consumers have been waiting in line to get the dalgona treats and posting videos of them doing the challenge on social media.

Also, the numbered green tracksuits worn by the 456 contestants in Squid Game were sold on e-commerce platforms like Taobao and Jindong, although they are no longer available. According to a Taobao clothing seller, the tracksuits were so popular that he had to stay up until four in the morning to make them.

In addition to the tracksuits, the black masks with a white shape worn by the guards have also been trending. In Yiwu, also known as the “largest small commodity wholesale market in the world” in Central Zhejiang Province, one of the top-selling products is the masks. They are not only demanded locally but also internationally.

Many products incorporating the intellectual properties of Squid Game were used without paying for the use of them. During a meeting of the foreign affairs and unification committee of the National Assembly on October 6th, 2021, Ambassador Jang Ha-sung has requested the Chinese authorities to take action regarding piracy. Although Squid Game was not allowed in China in the first place, if foreign companies had created popular media content that reached China, they should consider IP protection in China. For example, they can consider Alifish, an IP trading and entertainment business unit under the Chinese multinational technology company Alibaba.

Squid’s Victory: the Chinese version of Squid Game

Squid’s Victory is the plagiarized Chinese version of Squid Game. After the Chinese streaming giant Youku posted the promotional video of its version, it received strong criticism from Chinese viewers. Users on Weibo have commented on their annoyance and embarrassment from Chinese producers copying Korean content and taking advantage of the Korean TV series. After arousing such dissatisfaction among its netizens, the company apologized and explained that it was a mistake as it had been the draft of the design of “Victory of the Game” and not “Squid’s Victory”. However, the netizens were still not convinced.

How is Hellbound – the South Korean series that took over Squid Game, doing in China?

After Squid Game took the world by storm, another South Korean TV series Hellbound (地狱般的 in Chinese), became the world’s most-watched TV series as of November 20th, 2021. However, it wasn’t as popular as Squid Game in China. There aren’t popular products or the general “hype” that Squid Game had brought to Chinese consumers.

Source: Taobao, page displaying Hellbound when searched on Chinese online shopping platform on Taobao (right), poster of Hellbound available for sale (right)

Key takeaways from the popularity of Squid Game in China

  1. Despite Netflix being unavailable in China, Squid Game rose in popularity among Chinese viewers who accessed the series through unofficial ways. However, government regulation has resulted in little to no content available about the series on e-commerce platforms like Taobao and social sites like Weibo.
  2. Just like in other countries across the world, products related to Squid Game, especially dalgona, the green tracksuits, and the black masks, were popular among Chinese consumers. Even products related to Hellbound weren’t widely available or popular.
  3. Although China’s streaming giant Youku plagarized Squid Game by releasing a promotional video of “Squid’s Victory”, the Chinese citizens weren’t supportive of it but rather expressed negative responses.

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