Celebrities Friends the meeting was noticeably less star-laden when it landed in China on Thursday. The special episode was around six minutes missing when it rolled out to Chinese streaming services. Among the cuts: special appearances by K-pop supergroup BTS, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, plus brief cameos made by LGBTQ Friends Fans.
China has a huge Friends fanbase and the reunion special were acquired by the country’s three major video platforms – iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku from Alibaba. Each of the services appear to have made brutal changes to the episode in anticipation of complaints from Beijing regulators and notorious nationalist internet trolls in the country. While the exact cuts made by each streamer differ slightly, they all ended up being shaved about 6 minutes compared to the original version of HBO Max, which had a runtime of 1:43:50.
In the original version of the special, BTS briefly appears to share their love of Friends, with group leader RM saying that the show “really taught me things about life and true friendship.” In China, this segment was totally absent.
BTS have been the target of Chinese censors and nationalists since last October. Receiving an award celebrating the cultural relations between the United States and South Korea, RM spoke about the “story of pain” and the “shared sacrifices” of South Korean and American soldiers during the Korean War. Some in China saw the remarks as an affront, as China supported the North in the war and suffered heavy losses as well. Advertising campaigns featuring BTS were quickly launched around the country and the group has remained personae non grata ever since.
Lady Gaga’s much-loved rendition of “Smelly Cat” with Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe has been shortened to seconds to completely excise the song’s pop star. Gaga has been banned in China since she met the Dalai Lama – a dangerous separatist according to Beijing – in 2016.
Bieber accidentally infuriated Chinese fans in 2014 when he posted on Instagram about a visit he made to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, unaware that the religious site is a source of international controversy because the souls of war criminals Japanese from World War II were buried there (Japanese political leaders regularly anger Seoul and Beijing by making ceremonial visits to the shrine). Bieber has since been blacklisted in China. So Bieber’s brief appearance in the HBO Max special, in which he dons Ross’s ridiculous “Spudnik” Halloween costume, also got the ax.
Most repressive was the way the Chinese banners handled the brief moments of the Friends reunions that reference or celebrate the show’s LGBTQ fans. All footage hinting at gay lifestyles was cut by all three platforms, including a heartwarming statement made by a German fan named Ricardo, who appears on the special to say, “I was a gay man who wanted to. have hair like Jennifer Aniston then you can imagine how lonely I felt sometimes.
Other cuts were obviously prudish, if harmless, like the deletion of a moment where Joey appears in a bathrobe with a picture of Ross stuck to his groin.
Despite the cuts, the Friends the reunion seems to have struck a chord in China. A wave of emotion and nostalgia for the series has proliferated on Chinese social media since the premiere. The show currently has a sky-high 9.5 / 10 rating on Chinese film and TV reviews site Douban, making it one of the highest-rated TV imports in recent memory.