The customization features in Animal Crossing: New Horizons have helped it become a popular, versatile platform for all kinds of social activity while the world adapts to social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. People are going on dates, having dance parties, and putting on art shows in Nintendo's life sim. Some in Hong Kong have also used it as an avenue for pro-democracy protests, and it seems the mainland Chinese government may be limiting access to the game as a result.
Last week, USgamer published a feature by Alexis Ong on the subject of the pro-Hong Kong protests in New Horizons—players are dressing up their characters in the black and yellow protest color outfits and creating giant murals criticizing Hong Kong's government leader Carrie Lam and China's president Xi Jinping. With outside activity limited due to the pandemic, sharing art in Animal Crossing is becoming an increasingly popular way for the protestors to spread their demands for independence from mainland China.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, Animal Crossing has also found an audience despite not being officially released for the Switch there. Nintendo only launched the Switch in mainland China in partnership with Tencent back in December 2019. So far, the only games to receive government approval for sale are New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and Super Mario Odyssey. Now, listings for imports of Animal Crossing: New Horizons have been scrubbed from Taobao, one of the largest e-commerce sites serving the mainland.
As Niko Partners Senior Analyst Daniel Ahmad explains on Twitter, the reason for the removed listings given by Taobao cites a 2017 ban on imported games that has only been enforced sporadically since its creation. Animal Crossing may have caught the attention of regulators based on its popularity alone, pro-Hong Kong protests or no, but user-made content critical of Lam and Jinping likely factors into the Taobao removal. Ahmad points out it's still possible for mainland China players to purchase Animal Crossing through smaller retailers, by direct purchases from Taobao sellers, or after changing their eShop region.
Joshua Wong, Secretary general of the Hong Kong youth activist group Demosisto, responded to the news of the Taobao delisting this morning. "Oh no, Xi Jinping banned Animal Crossing in China (apparently because I play it), and these angry gamers are blaming me everywhere instead of blaming their own government lol," Wong tweets. Wong and another Demosisto member went on to stream themselves playing New Horizons with other pro-Hong Kong players.
For now, Animal Crossing: New Horizons functions normally for players in mainland China, online features and all. It's possible that New Horizons may never see an official release in mainland China, but as it's not officially released in the region. Still, at present, it's also not susceptible to the kind of review bombing that helped lead to last year's delisting of Taiwanese horror game Devotion, which shipped with a meme critical of Xi Jinping hidden in it.