South Park’s second episode of its 23rd season, “Band in China”, feels perfectly timed. Amidst the Blizzard banning a player for speaking out in favor of Hong Kong protests and China banning the NBA preseason over a team manager’s tweet, South Park’s commentary on China’s censorship could not have been better. Yet this episode contains an even deeper message that audiences may have missed.
As a brief summary, “Band in China” follows two story lines, Stan’s and Randy’s. Stan’s story line follows Stan as he tries to write and star in a music biopic while attempting to not offend the Chinese government with its content. Meanwhile, Randy’s story line follows Randy as he attempts to sell his home grown marijuana to the Chinese.
The two plot’s end in completely opposite ways. Stan, who was initially ready to sell out for quick money, decides that he is done selling his integrity to China – an action that mirror’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s stance. In contrast, for all of his talk of “‘tegrity”, Randy gives in to China and gains a literal truck load of cash while just happening to have blood on his hands.
On an initial viewing, the message is clear. There are two types of entertainers out there: those that will censor their art for the money that China provides and those that have true integrity. But on a deeper reading of the episode, I think there is a deeper meaning: that Randy and Stan are two versions of the same person.
Following Stan’s arc in this episode, we don’t see a person who says no to China at the first instance of censorship. Because the first instance of censorship seemed relatively minor: just don’t mention the Dalai Lama or Winnie the Pooh. That’s fine, these are not integral components of the story so they can be easily removed. Money still comes in, story stays intact.
Yet over the course of the episode, the Chinese influence increases. First we have a Chinese officer on the set giving comments on the dialogue and then we have the Chinese officer actively crossing out Stan’s script as he writes it. And when Stan is ready to just give up, he still takes one last attempt at creating a movie that could please China. It’s only in the last minutes of the episode that Stan says he won’t sell his soul if it means China gets to control his country’s art.
Stan, as the writer surrogate, often speaks for Matt Stone and Trey Parker. In this moment, he is not saying that he will not give into China’s censorship, but that he will not continue giving in to China’s censorship. South Park has been running for twenty three seasons. In that time they have stood up to the censorship of art whenever they’ve seen it, even amidst death threats for depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Yet it has taken twenty three seasons for an episode to come out against China. Sure, there have been racist jokes against people of Chinese descent, but nothing about the Communist Party or the leader of China. And this form of censorship has been going on for a while as noted by Stan when he says “now I know how all of the writers in Hollywood feel.”
This is the message that I think the episode is trying to get at. Not that marketing to China has started a form of economic censorship, but that this censorship has been going on for a long time. And for a while, it did not seem worth fighting because it was minor. But at some point, the creators of South Park had to decide that enough was enough and that they were done standing for this type of censorship.
So in some sense, Randy and Stan are the same person. Randy was willing to go to a greater extreme, but they were both willing to sell their souls to China for money, even if Stan didn’t initially realize the effects of his actions.
And to be clear, I do not mean this as a criticism of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They were willing to give up a truckload of money so they could fight for free speech while, in the process, reminding the world that a large portion of our media comes pre-approved by the Chinese government. And that will continue as long as it is backed by trucks of money.