Chinese viewers flock to stream Netflix's South Korean hit 'Squid Game'—illegally

The pirating of the show sparks a small industry in knock-off merchandise related to the show, which has garnered more than 100 million viewers worldwide.
By Bo Tao
Chinese viewers flock to stream Netflix's South Korean hit 'Squid Game'—illegally This handout image Courtesy of Netflix shows a scene from South Korea's 'Squid Game' Season one.

Netflix's global hit Korean-language TV show "Squid Game" has been pirated on around 60 streaming sites in China, according to South Korea's ambassador to China, as fans also scrambled to lay hold of merchandise from the show.

Ambassador Jang Ha-sung said he had asked the Chinese authorities to take action.

“Our assessment is that 'Squid Game', which is gaining global popularity, is being illegally distributed on around 60 sites in China,” Jang told a meeting of the foreign affairs and unification committee of the National Assembly on Oct. 6 by video link reported by Agence France-Presse and Yonhap news agencies.

In Shanghai, a crowd recently formed at an eatery selling dalgona—the crisp sugar candy featured in one episode—with customers gathering at its Squid Game-themed sign to take photos, AFP reported.

After buying the candy, some people filmed their attempt at a challenge from the show, where contestants try to cut shapes from the snack without cracking it.

Meanwhile, Chinese manufacturers were quick to churn out the bright pink uniforms and strange masks worn by the guards in "Squid Game," setting up shop on the auction site Taobao, the agency said.

Netflix currently has no service available behind the Great Firewall of CCP internet censorship, and the distribution of new foreign movies and TV dramas is banned without prior approval by ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors.

"Squid Game" has garnered more than 100 million fans around the world since its launch last month, Netflix said via its Twitter account, making it the platform's most popular launch ever.

The show is set in a dystopian world in which marginalized people are pitted against one another in traditional children's games for huge cash prizes. But the games end with a macabre twist: the losing players are put to death.

The pro-China South China Morning Post (SCMP) said Squid Game would never likely be approved by Chinese censors because of its themes of inequality and its scenes of graphic violence.

Chinese media regulators have issued a slew of directives in recent months requiring content shown in China to be filled with revolutionary fervor and positive energy, and devoid of effeminate men or "immorality."

The move comes as CCP general secretary Xi Jinping pushes ahead with his campaign for "national rejuvenation," tightening ideological control over education, the media, business, culture and religion.


Triumph for soft power

The success of "Squid Game" comes as South Korea continues to make a mark on global culture with its K-pop band BTS and Oscar-winning film "Parasite."

"The story itself is very Korean, very traditional, with traditional social emotions, reflecting South Korean society," Li Dongbei, a Chinese professor of cultural content at Konkuk University in South Korea, told RFA. "But at the same time, the social stratification and the emotions are very universal."

"The story may take place in South Korea, but it could happen anywhere in the world, in any country," she said. "One of its biggest features is empathy ... when you watch it, you can't help but feel that you are in the same situation, and wonder what you would do."

"It has a very strong persuasive power, and the cultural barriers are actually pretty low when it's viewed transnationally," Li said. "That's why it has so many viewers all over the world."

Professor Li Changyu of Kyungpook University in South Korea said the show is yet another triumph for South Korean soft power, and isn't an accident, but the result of targeted and coordinated policies since 1997.

"The conditions of this rise of South Korean cultural products were born of a cultivation mechanism for innovative talent, a corporate-centered culture and a development strategy on the part of the leadership," Li Changyu told RFA.


High cultural barrier

By contrast, China emphasizes Xi's concept of "self-confidence" when seeking to wield soft power around the world.

"Most of the stories that are told in China are the product of people who live in the same social system, received the same education and come from the same background," Li Dongbei said.

"So they can only be understood by people who have also lived there, and the cultural barrier is actually pretty high."

But Beijing's use of the CCP-backed language-teaching Confucius Institutes to spread its influence and shut down speech it disapproves of on overseas campuses has backfired in recent years, amid growing concern that the CCP is increasing wielding hard power to infiltrate the political life of democracies beyond its borders.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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