Chinese state TV obscures maskless crowd during World Cup broadcast


Amid rare anti-government protests in China in response to ‘zero covid’ restrictions, football fans on social media were quick to point out an unusual quality to World Cup broadcasts on state television: they presented few images of the crowd.

A far from comprehensive review of CCTV coverage against the official FIFA World Cup feed, other international broadcasts and past CCTV World Cup broadcasts indicates that viewers in line might be right: while other international broadcasts focus on viewers and atmosphere, CCTV, China’s public broadcaster, seems to be doing the exact opposite, its cameras glued to the ground.

The World Cup, which draws more than half a billion viewers in China, comes at a difficult time for Beijing’s censorship apparatus, already in overdrive as protesters challenge Chinese President Xi Jinping’s coronavirus policies . Fans have speculated that the government hopes to downplay the unmasked spectators from around the world, gathered in Qatar, who have largely abandoned coronavirus precautions, even as the virus continues to spread.

China is battling a major surge of new coronavirus cases, due in part to highly contagious variants and low rates of natural immunity. In an ongoing effort to completely eradicate the virus, an approach largely abandoned elsewhere, China continues to keep its borders closed and to enforce increasingly unpopular mask mandates, lockdowns and other restrictions.

Meanwhile, in Qatar, a different reality is evident, as fans celebrate their teams, seemingly oblivious to covid.

These disparate scenes pose a direct challenge to Xi’s power, Xiao said. Qiang, researcher at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and editor of China Digital Times, a bilingual news site.

Chinese officials are “telling people that outside of China people are dying massively, they can’t handle the virus” and “what we are doing is the only right way,” Xiao said. So when people see a different reality on display at the World Cup and compare it to their own situation, perhaps in lockdown, it can sow discontent, he said.

Although spectators without masks can still be seen in CCTV coverage, which can only be broadcast from Chinese IP addresses, the cameras seem to avoid lingering on spectators, noted Mark Dreyer, who manages the China Sports Insider website.

“I am convinced that it is linked to covid. They don’t want to point out that there are unmasked people out there in a stadium because it ruins the facade that covid is killing everyone outside the country,” Dreyer said. “It’s completely unnecessary as far as I’m concerned, because you always see the wide shots. You always see that there are 50,000 or 60,000 people in the stadium.

On Nov 28, Dreyer tweeted: “I literally spent the last two hours watching parallel feeds of the Brazil-Switzerland match and there were FORTY-TWO times where CCTV avoided showing close-ups of the crowd/fans. I saw ONE close-up crowd on CCTV (ex-Brazilian players) at the start of the game.

Dreyer said the cuts are likely being made by CCTV editors in Doha who can choose from dozens of different feeds of coaches or aerial shots in real time to avoid showing close-ups of fans. For the most part, these choices are subtle enough to be unnoticeable to viewers.

But sometimes editors seem to make mistakes. During a match between Brazil and Switzerland on Tuesday, Dreyer noted, the CCTV feed did not include a slow-motion replay of the match’s only goal and instead opted for a high-angle shot of the Brazilian players as “little little dots on a celebratory pitch. A Washington Post comparison of the CCTV feed with international providers confirmed the disparity.

On Chinese social media, side-by-side images comparing World Cup coverage have circulated widely, fueling frustration and speculation.

“This time, the images broadcast by CCTV are often bizarre,” wrote a user on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, according to a translation from the Wall Street Journal. “For example, slow motion footage doesn’t play out in full, angles aren’t complete, empty scene shots pop up for no good reason. When they cut to long distance shots and landscapes, what are they actually trying to hide? I’m just purely curious.

Some viewers commented on the day and night difference between life in China and Qatar.

“None of the fans wore a mask and no one was asked to show a nucleic acid test certificate. Do we even live on the same planet as them? Can’t covid-19 hurt them? a user asked on WeChat, a popular messaging app, before the account was suspended, according to China Digital Times.

Neither CCTV nor Chinese officials have spoken publicly about the coverage. CCTV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An article addressing public frustration in a Communist Party newspaper on Tuesday cited the relative lack of face coverings at the World Cup – but said masks were still needed in China in part because of the relatively large number low number of hospital beds in the country, the What’s on Weibo website reported.

China’s state broadcaster has a long history of censoring political signs, statements and individuals, including in international sports, deemed dangerous to the ruling Communist Party.

Last year, China blocked access to current and archived Boston Celtics games after a player accused the Chinese government of “cultural genocide” in Tibet. The previous year, the NBA issued a public apology to China after a Houston Rockets player spoke out in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and Beijing banned streams of the team’s games in response.

The World Cup holds special significance for the Chinese public because it was one of the first competitions people watched when the country opened up to the international community in the 1980s, Xiao said.

This year, as millions of people in China remain stuck indoors and under surveillance, the games have widened the “gap between China and the rest of the world”, he said. “In this context, everything will prompt the Chinese to react.”

Christian Shepherd and Pei-Lin Wu contributed to this report.


A previous version of this article referred to Xiao Qiang, a Berkeley researcher, as Qiang on the second reference. The article has been updated to indicate that Xiao is her last name.


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