China’s World Cup Viewers See Covid-Driven Censorship

HONG KONG—Some soccer fans have accused Chinese state television of manipulating its broadcasts of the World Cup to maintain the illusion that life in China under its strict zero-Covid rules isn’t too dissimilar from the outside world.

While protesters took to the streets in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai over the weekend to condemn Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy, viewers at home logged on to social media to castigate state broadcaster China Central Television for allegedly trying to veil the fact that many countries have moved away from tough measures such as mass lockdowns and mask mandates.

When the World Cup, the most prestigious tournament in international soccer, opened in Qatar earlier this month, many Chinese fans watching CCTV’s coverage noticed that stadiums were filled with large crowds mingling and soaking up the festivities without masks—in contrast to how China still generally requires masking up at mass gatherings.

The images jarred with the daily experiences of many Chinese, who face recurrent lockdowns and mass Covid testing as part of Mr. Xi’s zero-tolerance approach. But as the tournament unfolded, some fans noticed a subtle shift in what they saw on screen: Footage of maskless crowds grew increasingly scarce.

A side-by-side video shared on Chinese social media compares China Central Television’s broadcast of Saturday’s World Cup match between Tunisia and Australia with footage from an unidentified English-language broadcaster. When the English-language feed showed shots of unmasked spectators, the Chinese broadcast showed Tunisia’s coaching staff.



On Chinese social media, many fans disparaged what they saw as ham-handed censorship. They juxtaposed clips from CCTV’s World Cup broadcasts with footage from other providers—revealing that moments where foreign channels showed maskless fans were often absent from the Chinese feed, which used alternate angles that focused on players and coaches.

A side-by-side comparison of footage from Saturday’s contest between Tunisia and Australia, widely shared on


showed CCTV cutting to shots of coaches and players at moments when an English-language broadcast was showing unmasked faces in the crowd.

Footage of maskless spectators hasn’t been entirely absent from CCTV broadcasts, but some Chinese fans argued that such images appeared much less frequently than what they came to expect from past coverage. Even during moments when many networks show close-ups of fans, such as the pre-match singing of national anthems, CCTV has often aired long-distance shots of the crowd in which it is hard to make out individual faces.

“This time the CCTV broadcast images are often weird. For example, slow-motion footage isn’t aired in full, the angles aren’t comprehensive, shots of empty scenery appear for no good reason,” one user wrote on the popular social media platform Weibo. “When they cut to long-distance and scenery shots, what are they trying to hide in reality? I’m just purely curious.”

In a rare show of defiance, crowds in China gathered for the third night as protests against Covid restrictions spread to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. People held blank sheets of paper, symbolizing censorship, and demanded the Chinese president step down. Photo: Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Some Weibo users accused CCTV of trying to cover up the fact that life in many countries has largely returned to prepandemic norms, whereas China still maintains heavy-handed controls—and even gave up the hosting rights to the 2023 Asian Cup soccer tournament, which was originally scheduled to take place across 10 Chinese cities next summer, because of the Covid risk.

Critics also pointed out that CCTV, like other state media, has routinely portrayed Western countries as acting irresponsibly in easing Covid controls and allowing countless unnecessary deaths.

“Unreasonable, I’ve no words apart from this is unreasonable,” one soccer-focused blogger wrote on Weibo. “If you’re so scared, why don’t you just not broadcast the World Cup, and instead make up some fake news that the World Cup has been canceled due to excessive Covid-related deaths in the West.”

FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, and CCTV didn’t respond to requests for comment.

According to FIFA’s list of licensees for media rights to the 2022 World Cup, CCTV holds the official rights in China for broadcasting matches on television, radio and mobile devices. CCTV has said its sports channel logged strong viewership numbers for World Cup matches across television and mobile platforms.

Chinese state media have long been wary of the political sensitivities involved in live telecasts of sporting events, particularly those taking place abroad and beyond the Chinese government’s control. The concern is that cameras may pick up images of organizers, athletes and audiences doing things or propagating messages that contradict Beijing’s narratives, industry analysts say.

One example took place during the 2004 Super Bowl, which was the first to be aired nationwide in China by CCTV’s main sports channel. During the halftime show, the broadcast featured a minute-long montage—meant as a tribute to democratic freedoms—that included an iconic photo of “Tank Man,” an unidentified person who stood in front of tanks leaving Tiananmen Square after the deadly military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

The same Super Bowl halftime show also featured the infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” which prompted American broadcasters to start airing live sports with a brief time delay to allow producers to excise controversial imagery.

Chinese state television applies the same technique when broadcasting live sports, often with a 30-second delay, giving editors time to replace problematic images—such as banners supporting Tibetan independence—with footage from alternate cameras, according to Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based analyst of China’s sports industry.

In some ways, what CCTV has done with its World Cup broadcasts isn’t dissimilar to how some European networks covered soccer matches played during the height of the pandemic, adding artificial crowd noises and avoiding certain camera angles that would have emphasized how the stadiums were empty, Mr. Dreyer said.

The difference is that for Chinese fans, watching the World Cup is “like peeking behind the curtains,” Mr. Dreyer said. “People can see that life is different overseas, and not perhaps as they’ve been told.”

Write to Chun Han Wong at

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