China censors maskless crowd footage in World Cup broadcasts

<span>Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP</span>
Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Chinese state television has censored World Cup games to remove shots of maskless crowds after the sight of joyous fans celebrating in packed stadiums stoked anger back home, where hundreds of millions remain under strict pandemic restrictions.

A well-attended opening ceremony in Qatar – with no social distancing – led to users of Chinese social media platforms complaining that it contrasted with the severe isolation they felt under President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy.

Chinese netizens said it was “weird” to see hundreds of thousands of people gathering in a carnival-like atmosphere while they were still forced to live under a draconian system that most other countries have long abandoned.

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The official Global Times newspaper acknowledged some fans were “choosing to watch the games at home with their families” due to Covid restrictions under which people have been discouraged from gathering to watch the tournament.

Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider blog, noticed that games broadcast on the state-owned channel, China Central Television (CCTV), were being edited to avoid live shots of cheering crowds and instead show closeups of the players and coaches.

“Of course, there are going to be times when you still see crowd shots – wider shots, after some goals when a cutaway shot would be too jarring etc,” Dreyer wrote on Twitter. “But there is clear reduction.”

Broadcasters at sporting tournaments are typically given the option by organisers to choose their own camera angles, and can set a delay so that the game can be edited quickly before the public sees it.

Dreyer, the author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best, said such “pre-emptive censorship” was not a new policy for Beijing. “Chinese broadcasters are notoriously cautious of crowd shots at international sporting events because of what might be seen – like Tibetan flags, for example,” he said.

The Fifa World Cup has come at a particularly explosive time for China, just weeks after Xi secured a historic third term in power. Coronavirus case numbers have hit record highs, prompting yet more lockdowns in cities across the country. Beijing has defended its policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system.

But in the past few days, hundreds of demonstrators and police have clashed in Shanghai over the restrictions. Such a wave of civil disobedience has been rare in mainland China in the past decade, with Xi having cracked down on any public display of dissent.