The Shifting Role of Film Censorship in China’s Political Dominance

Film censorship has always played a crucial role in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political ascendance and maintenance of power. Since its inception in 1949, the CCP has long implemented regulations to deny the Chinese people access to certain content. Over this time, it has developed a multi-layered censorship program consisting of several government agencies, including provincial officials, municipal Party committees, and the film bureau. The CCP is well aware of the power of the film industry; films played a pivotal role in the spread of Communism across China. Following the conflict with the Kuomintang in the 1940s, the CCP invested in new film studios, both to commemorate the successful takeover of the mainland and to serve as a tool to promote its ideologies. Continuing into the 1950s, the CCP continued to both produce and control content screening in theaters. Film producers essentially became state-owned ventures by 1952.

The CCP’s ever-watchful gaze upon Chinese films reflects its careful efforts to curate its own image. Mao Zedong himself saw art and culture as intrinsically intertwined. For this reason, he considered film a tool that, if used wisely, could allow his party to dominate the social and political discourse of the nation. However, he also saw the potential danger in films as tools for dangerous ideologies, immoral behaviors, and anti-revolutionary sentiment. From this tension came the back-and-forth between praise and denunciations for filmmakers or films. The message behind these judgments were clear: The fate of all art was in the hands of the Party.

This tactic remains as China enforces stringent policies regarding which films or other art forms may enter its borders. Government agencies such as the Central Committee’s Publicity Department hold absolute authority in determining which films will be shown on the big screen, relegated to DVD distribution, or banned altogether.

This is not to say that the CCP’s strategy has remained static; rather, the threshold for which films are considered ‘acceptable’ to the public has shifted with evolving economic conditions and social values. Following the Cultural Revolution and the reform movements which former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping spearheaded, the CCP saw films as a tool they had yet to properly control. The CCP understood that ideology alone was not enough; they also had to entertain the audience. This realization allowed the tamed industry to blossom: Films attempted to rival the glory of established names such as Hollywood while retaining the CCP’s core values by “dispelling capitalist aspirations.” In this way, the CCP used censorship to navigate between asserting China as a major player on the world stage and staying true to its founding ideologies.

However, from the rapid growth in its film industry arose an identity crisis for the CCP: As filmmakers began to garner fame abroad, its control seemed to weaken. As the influence of Chinese films increased, it transcended the management and regulation powers of the government. Many began to question whether the CCP could keep up with the vigorous modernization of China, prompting a backlash from leadership.

The case of Mabel Cheung, an established filmmaker from Hong Kong, gives a clear picture of the shift in government attitude toward censorship during this period. According to his accounts, the 1980s were a rather lax period in film regulations, with “the only issue [being] people crowding the set as they were so excited to see Hong Kong film stars.” However, during filming for The Soong Sisters in 1997, Cheung faced more obstacles, including having to co-produce the film with a Beijing-based film studio and have the script and film itself approved prior to filming by the Important Affairs Commission due to the film being a historical recount, all of which still resulted in the finale being cut. Cheung’s films after this event have not fared any better in circumventing the strict regulations. In short, the CCP has reclaimed what films shown and produced in China can and will say by taking a much more resolute stance against what it deems inappropriate.

"Chinese films now stand under a government that commands absolute oversight over mass production and distribution."

Interestingly, many films that end up not making the cut on the big screen are nonetheless given license to distribute on DVD or online; there are many instances of films containing graphic content, sexually deviant behavior, or other ‘morally corrupting’ actions being pulled from theaters even after the requested edits but still legally remaining available elsewhere. The CCP could be employing this as a subtle tactic either in order to signal that films not shown for public viewing are not officially endorsed, hence discouraging viewing, or that films not viewed widely and with little publicity pose little threat to the CCP’s goals.

Regardless of such exemptions, at this point, Chinese films now stand under a government that commands absolute oversight over mass production and distribution. From this scenario, something truly fascinating has emerged. Whereas the CCP had used censorship to push back against conflicting ideologies (especially those which the West promulgated), censorship now embodies the power and exclusivity that China now holds. Films now face a precarious juncture: the market in China is tremendous, with millions of viewers and billions in revenue up for grabs, as China boasts the world’s second-largest film market with its $8.42 billion in gross box office revenue. Hence, a film’s entry into China could mean huge success, particularly given China’s specific rule of allowing only thirty-four films every year to be distributed on a revenue sharing condition, which limits competition in an otherwise oversaturated global film industry.

Nonetheless, producers are subject to an ultimatum: either they co-produce films with Chinese studios or adjust their work to cater to the demands of the CCP. Films co-produced with Chinese studios (which tend to fare better in audience viewership due to familiar scenes shot in China or actors/actresses who may grace the screen) usually more directly reinforce positive images of China. Perhaps it is for this reason that co-produced films are not included within the foreign film cap, as it is easier to contain them. Co-production only serves to improve Chinese films, as technologies and techniques from abroad are imported, thereby fueling the industry’s advancement. The film Kung Fu Panda 3 was a by-product of several stages of collaboration between Dreamworks Studio and several Chinese investment companies. This partnership then developed into Oriental Dreamworks, and finally the  independent company, Pearl Studio. In this way, China takes ownership of and innovates upon foreign artistic, technological and creative skills. In the case of films produced outside of China, the process can be more grueling. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) guidelines are often unclear or vague, with many calling out its apparent  double-standard whereby it approves movies discussing tense historical topics from certain time periods and not others, or rules out immoral actions in one film and not another. Foreign films have thus had to change some of their content directly to engage with the SAPPRFT rulings. For example, SAPPRFT deemed a scene from the film Skyfall, in which James Bond kills a Chinese security guard, unfit for public viewing, listing potential anger at the death of a Chinese national by a foreigner as their reason. Furthermore, many films now attempt to forge their path into the Chinese mainstream by overtly placing China in the best possible light, such as the deus ex machina ending in Gravity.

Through its film industry regulations, the CCP is able to manipulate what enters Chinese borders, and in turn, influences global trends in the film industry: As more studios and filmmakers abroad try to gain access to a China’s audience, the CCP may dictate the narrative it wishes to create without much effort or even direct action. Film censorship in China is unlikely to lighten: Regulations will continue to be both strict and vague, films abroad will continue to try to cater to China’s ‘positive image,’ and both sides will find ways to extract value from the other.

Photo: “China landscape

About the Author

Ye Chan Song '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Ye Chan can be reached at ye_chan_song@brown.edu

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