Tea Leaf Nation

Why Taylor Swift’s 1989 Merchandise Is Not Going to Get Her Banned in China

For Beijing’s new Internet regime, sometimes commerce beats censorship.

BATON ROUGE, LA - MAY 22:  Taylor Swift performs on stage during "The 1989 World Tour" at LSU Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA on May 22, 2015.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for TAS)
BATON ROUGE, LA - MAY 22: Taylor Swift performs on stage during "The 1989 World Tour" at LSU Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA on May 22, 2015. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for TAS)

On July 20, one of China’s largest e-commerce websites, JD.com, announced that it is partnering with popular American singer Taylor Swift to become the first authorized retailer of her merchandise in China. That news likely wouldn’t have turned heads, except that some of the merchandise is emblazoned with “T.S. 1989” — Swift’s initials and birth year — but also the year and initials of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, to Beijing one of the most sensitive events in modern Chinese history.

Western media outlets quickly pounced, speculating that the highly sensitive, though apparently coincidental, branding of her merchandise, which could also be interpreted to mean “Tiananmen Square 1989,” was setting her up for a run-in with Chinese authorities. The events of spring 1989 — the pro-democracy student movement and its bloody end in a military crackdown that killed hundreds — have been nearly wiped from the national consciousness. Even the most oblique references to the Tiananmen massacre are scrupulously deleted from China’s online spaces. And Chinese authorities have shown themselves more than willing to ban foreign performers who support Chinese political controversies. Icelandic singer Bjork has been unable to enter China since she shouted “Tibet, Tibet!” during a Shanghai concert in 2008. Taiwanese pop star A-mei was banned from performing in mainland China after she sang at the May 2000 inauguration of former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who had run on a pro-independence platform. And in July, a Maroon 5 concert in Shanghai was mysteriously canceled after a band member tweeted birthday wishes to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom China has deemed a separatist.

But unlike Swift, whose album and merchandise are named after her year of birth rather than any political controversy, those artists knowingly evinced support for Tibet, the Dalai Lama, or Taiwan, respectively. The American pop country singer, on the other hand, has simply adorned her merchandise with her initials and birth year. It’s clear that Swift, whose music is decidedly apolitical, did not intend to make a political statement with her new line of clothing, inspired by “1989,” her most recent album released in October 2014.

A closer look at the album’s current online status in China confirms that censors have not marked Swift’s album as politically sensitive. In a search performed on July 21 on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, not only was the search for “1989” not blocked, the first entries that came up were all Taylor Swift references. By comparison, the word “Tiananmen” is heavily filtered though not blocked on Weibo, while “Tiananmen Incident” is blocked completely, as is “535,” shorthand for “May 35,” a veiled reference to June 4.

On July 20, the branding company representing Swift, Heritage66Company, posted a video on Weibo featuring T-shirts with the “1989” logo; the post has been forwarded more than 1700 times — more than enough to catch the roving eyes of official censors — but has not been removed. There’s even a “T.S. 1989” hashtag on Weibo with 690 mentions and counting. Those results held for Chinese search giant Baidu, which complies with official censorship requirements and does not include sensitive material in its search results. If Swift’s album, tour, and merchandise are politically sensitive, that’s news to China’s censors.

It’s not just that Chinese authorities have gotten more skilled at distinguishing benign content from that which they view as subversive. China’s online censorship regime is increasingly sophisticated. And while tightened Internet controls over the past two years have muted online discussion, e-commerce companies have flourished and Internet start-ups have proliferated. Online retail giant Alibaba’s initial public offering in September, at $25 billion, ranked as the world’s largest. Mobile messaging app WeChat, with over 500 million active monthly users, has blazed trails with mobile payments and in-app, e-commerce stores. China’s Internet czar Lu Wei, who in the past year has championed Internet censorship as a valuable tool of cyber-governance rather than an embarrassment to be swept under the rug, has also promoted his vision of the Internet as an “Alibaba treasure trove.” And in March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promoted “Internet Plus,” a government action plan aimed at promoting the development of e-commerce, Internet banking, and web entrepreneurship — a key element of China’s intended market-oriented reforms. Clumsy Internet controls — such as jeopardizing the high-profile international partnership of one of China’s biggest e-commerce platforms over obviously nonpolitical memorabilia — would interfere with this plan to make the web a central cornerstone of China’s economic future.

Of course, the politically neutral status of Swift’s album and accompanying merchandise could change. If some in China choose to confer political meaning upon the 1989 merchandise — if, say, JD.com sees a spike in “T.S. 1989” sweatshirt purchases ahead of the June 4 anniversary next year, or if a group of activists mobilize on social media to wear the merchandise as a show of solidarity — it’s possible that the singer’s merchandise might come under official scrutiny. But for now, Chinese authorities are unlikely to deem Swift’s music and clothing line political statements — because they are not, in fact, political. And the ability to distinguish that is well within China’s own stated best interest.

Photo credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for TAS

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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