TAIPEI, Taiwan — First they came for Winnie the Pooh. Now, it appears China’s censors may have their sights on another cuddly cartoon character turned subversive symbol: Peppa Pig.
Over the weekend, more than 30,000 videos of the pink-snouted British character abruptly vanished from Douyin, a popular Chinese app that streams short videos, according to the English-language edition of the state-owned Global Times newspaper. On Tuesday afternoon, searches on the streaming platform for the term “Peppa Pig” yielded no results. The hashtag #PeppaPig also appears to have been banned.
Douyin, which is owned by the Chinese technology company Bytedance, has not commented on why it decided to ban videos about the seemingly innocuous children’s cartoon. On Tuesday, “Peppa Pig” episodes were still available for viewers to watch on popular streaming websites like Youku and iQiyi.
This has prompted speculation that Douyin’s decision to delete the videos was a case of pre-emptive self-censorship rather than a government-ordered ban. Recently, Chinese state media began to take notice of Peppa Pig’s viral fame. There have been numerous incarnations of the cartoon dubbed in Chinese dialects as well as a craze for everything from Peppa Pig temporary tattoos to candy-dispenser watches and, soon, even theme parks.
Last week, an editorial in the state-run People’s Daily newspaper expressed concern about whether the proliferation of counterfeit Peppa Pig merchandise and the constant chasing of fads would have a negative influence on China’s young generation.
“These are elements that are not conducive to the healthy development of cultural industries and we must be vigilant,” said the People’s Daily editorial. “After all, no matter how gangster Peppa Pig is, it cannot be allowed to destroy children’s youth and go beyond the rules and the bottom line.”
In an article about Douyin’s deletion of the videos, Global Times said the porcine cartoon figure had become an “unexpected cultural icon of shehuiren subculture in China.” The term is often used to refer to countercultural behavior, including teenage rebellion.
“Shehuiren literally means ‘society person,’ but in the online context, it refers to people who run counter to mainstream values, and are usually poorly educated, with no stable job,” said the article. “They are unruly slackers roaming around and the antithesis of the young generation the Party tries to cultivate.”
The decision to take down the Peppa Pig videos comes as Bytedance, one of the world’s most highly-valued technology start-ups, has been tightening operations amid growing government scrutiny.
Just last month, the technology start-up saw several of its video-sharing apps either shut down or pulled from the app store. In response to the setbacks, Zhang Yiming, the founder and chief executive of Bytedance, announced that the company would be expanding the team that monitors content to 10,000 people from 6,000.
“Content had appeared that did not accord with core socialist values and was not a good guide for public opinion,” Mr. Zhang wrote in a statement at the time. “Over the past few years, we put more effort and resources toward expanding the business, and did not take enough measures to supervise our platform.”
On the surface, Peppa Pig seems like an ideal fit for the Chinese government’s vision of an orderly harmonious online environment aligned with “core socialist values.” The show, which was first introduced in China in 2015, is centered on the themes of “friendship, coordination, and feelings,” according to Nick Jr., the children’s television channel. Each five-minute episode is humorous and lively, the family is close and loving, and there are no villains.
Outside of China, perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding the show so far has been that in some of the show’s earlier episodes, Peppa and her brother George were seen sitting in the car without seatbelts.
It is that wholesomeness that has made Peppa Pig’s reincarnation as an edgy symbol of counterculture and youth in China all the more surprising. As one person on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging service, wrote: “Peppa Pig probably never imagined she would become this popular on Douyin.”
Karoline Kan contributed research.
Follow Amy Qin on Twitter: @amyyqin.