Conspiracy Theories Plague Pokemon Go Launch Hopes in China

The Pokemon Go frenzy has swept over 35 countries around the globe, adding as much as $20 billion to the market value of Nintendo Co. But what are the chances that the hit augmented reality game will get a release in China, the world's largest smartphone and online gaming market?

Chinese state-backed newspaper Global Times reported this week that "millions of fans in China are eagerly awaiting" the release of the game, with #PokemonGo accumulating 330 million views on Weibo.

Meanwhile, a conspiracy theory involving the game has seized the imagination of the nationalist wing of Chinese social media, with users speculating that it might be a Trojan horse for U.S. and Japanese espionage efforts.

"Please don't play Pokemon Go," wrote Weibo user Moga gingham. "It will give away state secrets!"

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The conspiracy theory is that Japan and the U.S. are working through Nintendo and Niantic, the Google-backed company that developed the game, to identify the locations of Chinese military bases and secret facilities by tracking the areas that Chinese gamers can't visit to capture Pokemon characters. The theorists have alleged that Niantic will place highly prized Pokemon in such dark zones, and if no one enters the area to capture them, it can be deduced that it is a restricted space and potential military zone.

"Then, when war breaks out, Japan and the U.S. can easily target their guided missiles, and China will have been destroyed by the invasion of a Japanese-American game," said one widely retweeted post on Weibo.

"It's terrible to hear that the Japanese and the Americans want to control the Chinese map through this game's geolocation function," posted user Qingshan Yishen. "Let's think about the South China Sea conflict," he added, referencing China's contentious territorial disputes involving Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia-Pacific.

Regardless of whether regulators share such concerns - Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said last week that he was unaware of the allegations of a security threat, adding that he didn't have time to play with games - Pokemon Go would face plenty of challenges in China due to existing rules.

The game's functioning relies on Google services, such as Google Maps, which have been blocked in China since 2010. And China's regulatory climate has only gotten more stringent in the years and months since the Google ban.

On July 1, China instituted strict new rules requiring all mobile games to be pre-approved by the country's media regulators, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).

The harsh stance regulators have taken towards imported digital services in the first half of this year might not augur well for the approval of a hugely popular U.S. game like Pokemon Go - especially given the ties to Google (Niantic began as an internal startup at Google before being spun out in 2015). In April, Apple's iMovie and iBooks services abruptly were forced to shut down in China. Days later, regulators pressured Alibaba to suspend service of DisneyLife, an OTT service that it was using to distribute licensed Disney content in China. Neither the Disney nor the Apple service has been restored.

While Chinese gamers having been waiting and hoping for the original, a local Pokemon Go knock-off has stepped into the void to capitalize on a similar concept. "City Spirit Go," a less sophisticated location-based game produced by Shenzhen Tanyu Interactive Technology Co., is currently the number one iOS download in China's app store. In Mandarin, "City Spirit Go" and "Pokemon Go" have strikingly similar-sounding names. Chinese gaming site 86 Games reported that Shenzhen Tanyu was forced to boost their server capacity by a factor of ten to keep up with demand.

On the plus side for Nintendo and Niantic, one of China's most prominent companies - Dalian Wanda Group - is now invested in the success of the Pokemon brand. On Wednesday, Legendary Entertainment, which was acquired by Wanda for $3.5 billion in January, picked up the rights to make the first live-action Pokemon movie. The film is being fast-tracked to start production in 2017 in an effort to capitalize on the huge success of the game.