Asia Life

Netflix’s Great China Challenge

The company’s global expansion has hit a wall in China.

Netflix’s Great China Challenge
Credit: Netflix via Ken Wolter /

Media giant Netflix has undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the entertainment industry, with entire shows like House of Cards run entirely on the video streaming service. With a recent expansion to over 130 new countries, Netflix kicked off 2016 by announcing that it is now available worldwide. Indeed, since it debuted in Asia last September it has expanded to a grand total of 190 countries worldwide, with the potential to reach billions.

Three countries that are blocked for Netflix due to U.S. sanctions are Syria, North Korea, and Russian-controlled Crimea. There have been issues in other countries, too. For instance, in Indonesia government censors regularly block politically “sensitive” media as well as pornography.

And one giant market has remained immune to the charms of the media giant: China.

Although adding 130 countries is no small feat for a company founded less than 20 years ago, the conspicuous lack of market presence in the country with the largest potential customer base is revealing.

Human rights issues and Tibet-related content are regularly censored in China. With Netflix having removed movies banned in China, like Seven Years in Tibet and The Sun Behind the Clouds, in favor of more China-friendly films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, it will have a less difficult time with government controls. Interestingly, the Netflix original, House of Cards, includes an episode in which Tibetan Buddhist monks create and destroy a traditional sand mandala in the White House. Symbolic of the fundamental Buddhist concept of impermanence, an image of the Dalai Lama can be seen in that moment.

Last year, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos attended the White House State Dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping – an evening with a noticeable presence of tech giants, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who, along with Google and Amazon, has also been trying to reverse the government’s ban on his company.

In an attempt to continue trying to obtain governmental approval to stream in China, Netflix is preparing to add Chinese to its languages. With plans to become a “global television network,” reflected in its blunt new marketing line (#NetflixEverywhere), the possibility of breaking through China’s so-called Great Firewall will, indeed, be the ultimate test of censorship and free speech.