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Veteran Director Raises Curtain on China's Arbitrary Film Censorship Policy

The screening of the previously banned film V for Vendetta, on the state broadcaster China Central Television has stirred up hope for censorship reform in China.

On December 15, 2012, 70-year-old film director Xie Fei, a heavyweight in China's film industry and professor at the Beijing Film Academy, published an open letter [zh] on his micro-blog, advocating for replacement of China's film censorship with a rating system.

Outrageous film censorship practices

Fei worries China's development of cultural and creative industries will meet a dead end if the censorship system remains arbitrary and secretive. Similar reform proposal was raised in 2004 but was rejected by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) in 2010.

Cartoon on SARFT's role published in china.cn.org, a Chinese government portal site. Public domain.

Fei's letter, addressed to the SARFT, points out that the current censorship system is against China's constitution which protects citizens’ freedom of expression and freedom of press. He also discloses [zh] many outrageous censorship practices:

遠的例子:1994年3月12日,廣電部下文《關於不得支持、協助張元等人拍攝影視片及後期加工通知》,處罰張元、田壯壯、王小帥、吳文光等7位電影導演七年內不許拍攝影片,因為他們導演的影片《北京雜種》、《藍風箏》、《冬春的日子》等未經審查參加了國外電影節。由於這一決定,田壯壯導演七年沒有導演新作品,其他人則去拍攝不經審查的所謂「地下電影」,如《東宮西宮》等。以後許多年中,姜文、婁樺,賈梓柯等電影導演也陸續受到過同樣的剝奪文學藝術創作權利、禁止拍攝電影多年的行政處罰。我當時問詢過電影局幹部:「這個決定不是違犯憲法嗎?為什麼許多小說、美術、音樂、戲劇作品出國發表、展覧、不需要國家有關部門審查批准,電影出展卻成為違規犯法了呢?」此官員回答說:「我們認為所有電影都是代表國家的。」這個觀點不僅今天看來很荒謬,當時也難自圓其說。

Past example is: On 12 March 1994, SARFT issued a notice “Do not support Zhang Yuan and others in filming and post-production” to punish Zhang Yuan, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Wang Xiaoshuai, Wu Wenguang, and four other directors; they were banned from making films for 7 years because their productions – “Beijing Bastards“, “The Blue Kite“, “The Days” – were listed in overseas film festivals without going through domestic censorship. Because of this Tien Zhuangzhaung did not produce any movie for 7 years, others were forced to produce “underground movies” such as “East Palace, West Palace“. For many years, directors such as Jiang Wen, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke have also been deprived of their rights in creative works and banned from making movies because of administrative punishment. I questioned the authorities: “Aren't such decisions against the nation's constitution? While novels, artworks, music and theatre performance is released outside the country without censorship, such practice has become illegal in the film sector?” The official replied: “We regard all movies to represent the state.” Such perspectives are unreasonable and ridiculous in today's time.

Quoting a more recent censorship case Xie writes [zh]:

關於此片,某廣電總局的領導曾對我說,「同性戀不能在電影中表現,有領導人說過話。」影片中,女主人公在文工團愛上的男舞蹈員有同性戀傾向,影片有分寸地涉及了這一現象,我以為,同性戀是人類社會中存在的事實,公眾與法律均應尊重其存在。影片對此並無褒貶,怎麼不能表現?領導人的講話是代表法律,還是代表個人?這些年,一些電影立項、審查時,不時傳出的不見法律法規的要求,諸如「現代題材不許有鬼」、「不許穿越」、「不許婚外戀」、「不許寫某些政治歴史事件」等等,說明現在實行的審查制度不是「法治」,還是我們早就想結束掉的「人治」。

A SARFT official told me: “Homosexuality cannot be shown in a movie – a leader's instruction.” In the movie, the main female character falls in love with a male dancer who has homosexual tendencies but the film handles the subject delicately. Homosexuality is a social phenomena, the law and the public should acknowledge its existence. The movie does not make any judgement on the practice, why should it be banned? Is a leader's instruction, personal opinion or law? In the past few years, there are so many unwritten laws when censoring movies, such as “ghosts are not allowed in contemporary settings”, “extramarital affairs are not allowed”, “certain political incidents are not allowed” etc. The censorship system is not based according to [defined] “law” but according to [arbitrary] “individuals”.

Film censorship kills artistic exploration

Xie proposes replacing the current censorship system with a ratings system:

現行的國家以行政方式統一管理的電影立項與審查制度,早已沒有了實質性的社會、經濟、思想、文化意義,而是一個制約文化娛樂市場繁榮、扼殺藝術思想探索、浪費行政管理資源的成規陋習。

去年電影局審查通過的影片號稱791部,實際能進入影院見觀眾的不到200部,熱門的更少。有多少立項與審查工作是無意義的行政資源浪費?而現實中,通過碟片、電視、國內外各類影展放映的未經「審查」的所謂「地下電影」數量很多,加上正在興起的數量眾多專業或非專業人士拍攝的網絡電影、微電影,國家行政部門能夠去全部審查嗎?

The current administrative censorship on film is counterproductive to the development of our society, economy and culture. It wastes administrative resources, restricts the development of the cultural and entertainment market and kills artistic exploration.

Last year, SARFT claimed that it has reviewed 791 movies, but eventually less than 200 movies managed to make their way to the cinemas. Blockbusters were a lot less. How many administrative resources have been wasted? In reality, we have a large number of “underground movies” which haven't gone through the censorship system being circulated via satellite TV, DVC, and film festivals. In addition, internet movies, micro-movies produced by non-professionals are prospering online, can SARFT review all these?

So far more than 35,373 micro-bloggers have retweeted Xie's letter and there are more than 5,627 comments under the discussion thread. There are quite a few pro-censorship nationalistic comments, but they are likely coming from the so-called 50 cent party as they flooded in after the letter was quoted by overseas Chinese media outlets.

The pro-censorship nationalistic argument

潇洒静静7:问一下导演,那些色情暴力非正常的边缘情感诸如此类的影片题材对你们那么有吸引力吗?以个人小众的审美趣味来代替大部分人的审美倾向,行为本身就不道德。你喜欢的某些题材非要放到大众的环境中来传播,就牵涉到法律道德教育世俗伦理等诸多的问题,选择权不应由你们电影人小圈子的利益来决定。

潇洒静静7:Ask the director, are you that attracted to violent and pornographic content? It is immoral to replace the majority's aesthetic tendency with the minority's taste. To distribute topics of your liking in a public platform will touch upon issues related with law, education, morality and ethics and should not be decided by a small circle of movie producers.

自由的爱在春夏秋冬:什么叫文化自觉?中国导演(非针对谢导)应该搞清楚这些问题再来拍电影,免得浪费社会资源:以自我为中心还是为历史负责?取悦观众还是取悦欧美评审团?输出文化还是向外来文化跪拜?宣扬英雄主义爱国主义还是靠色情暴力赚钱?批判现实批判人性还是撕裂人心分化民族?再现历史还是糟践历史?

自由的爱在春夏秋冬:What is the meaning of self-awareness of the culture? Chinese directors (not only director Xie) should develop a clear notion of culture and the following issues before they produce movies, or else they will be wasting social resources: whether they should be responsible to history or be ego-centered? Whether they should appeal to an audience of western judges? Export our culture or kneel down to alien culture? Propagate patriotic heroism or earn money with violent and pornographic culture? Should they be critical towards reality and human greed or tear apart national unity? Represent history accurately or tread on history?

旅美丸子: 费导谢导去好莱坞拍吧,可以专拍中国和中国人变态,中国人是怎么被西方暴力色情牵着鼻子走的,美国人喜欢看。 中国人还是要看点积极向上的。在西方亚文化非主流色情暴力意识形态里打转,不会有有好作品。

旅美丸子: Director Xie should make a film in Hollywood. Then he can produce a sick China and some sick Chinese characters. The Americans like to watch how the Chinese are being led by western violence and pornography. Chinese should strike for better. They can't produce a good movie in western violent and pornographic sub-culture.

芥末丝儿-戎:个人觉得中国影迷和导演的素质太低,开放限制,中国的电影将香港化,滑向低级趣味,下流浅薄的深渊,中华民族的文化将遭到毁灭性打击。

芥末丝儿-戎:Movie fans and directors are low in quality in China. Once the restriction is lifted, Chinese movies will be Hong Kong-ized and turn vulgar and banal. Chinese culture will be ruined.

Anti-censorship opinions

Fortunately, the majority of opinions support Xie's proposal:

红叶紫花:政府管得太多,管政府的太少

红叶紫花:Too much control by the government, too little control over the government.

痒痒-挠儿:早该分级,支持!。但审查这事儿与分级无关,这完全是政治的需要,电影工作者与之抗争了N久而未果,在这种体制下也实属无奈。

痒痒-挠儿: Support ratings system. However, censorship has nothing to do with ratings. It is serving a political need. The film sector has been struggling with censorship for many years without any improvement. It is frustrating to work in such a political system.

四不清:大陆的文人有两种政治选择,一是投靠,变成一只宠物,摇头摆尾,过人上人的生活。一是拒绝,变成一只困兽,我行我素,过担惊受怕的日子。

四不清:Intellectuals in mainland China only have two choices. One is to surrender and become a tamed pet, pretending to be cute and begging for a living. One is to reject and be locked in a cage, living in fear but free.

狂奔的阿立:97年经济危机后,韩国取消了多年的电影审查制度。10多年后,韩国的文化产品已经在全球广受称赞。我不是想长他人威风,扇自己耳光,但现在韩国电影已经超过中国中国电影不是一星半点,这已是很多电影人的共识。如果内容制作需要这么多的审查,中国想要振兴文化产业,基本等于是放空炮。

狂奔的阿立:After the financial crisis in 1997, South Korea abolished its movie censorship system. Within 10 years, Korean cultural production has gained global recognition. I am not building my argument by glorifying other examples. But Korean movies are far ahead of China and all movie producers recognize this fact. If censorship of content prevails in China, the revival of Chinese culture will just be empty talk.

匹夫有责之道:支持!放飞梦想,解放思想,解脱束缚,文化才能大发展。希望“新政”、“新风”能够吹到文化领域,给艺术家们更多的想象空间,更好的创作环境。

匹夫有责之道:Support! Free our dream and free our thought. Only freedom can enhance our culture. Hope for the best that the “New Policy” and “Fresh Wind” will reach the cultural sector and give the artists more space for imagination and creative work.

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