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  • Published on: 21st September 2019
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In recent years people are beginning to shift their attention to the technological advancements as more and more people buy into these new products for everyday information. Because these media platforms are so easily accessible to a greater population, people can more easily find information they didn’t know before, and it is clearly beginning to stir up worry in the Chinese government, reflected in the increased intense surveillance over everything. From 1986, SARFT has had the main control over what films were approved or banned; however, in the following year, a major change is about to be implemented as SAPPRFT will be eliminated and replaced “with a new administration under close control of the ruling Communist Party” (Brzeski). This new shift, not only for stricter film regulations but stricter regulations for all media, brings attention to the concept of history beginning to repeat itself as the changes parallel Mao’s initial influence in shifting what content was allowed for the Chinese public. The proposal is currently being made with the intention “to eliminate bureaucracy while boosting the centrality of President Xi Jinping and party leadership” (Brzeski), similar to how Mao Zedong took charge in order for himself and his policies to appeal positively to the public.

Furthermore, a big takeaway when analyzing the history of censorship in China is that it has been present for a long time and many of the times what can be screened is influenced heavily by the authority. From the early 1900s till now, the regulations have shifted dramatically depending on what the people in power want the public to see. For a short period in 2003, the government gave a little more leeway to certain films that had been banned prior. With their stance as a proud country, officials were beginning to worry that their citizens were starting to forget about past Chinese events that influenced how the country came to be, so, as a result they became more lenient in certain aspects on what films could be shown as the government wanted people to be more aware of these major events once more. However, this clearly was not a long lasting decision as the changes in 2018 reverted back to the previous regulations and were considered more harsh than ever before.

Given the growing presence of the Chinese market, the question of foreign films being censored for the Chinese audience also comes into play. The Western audience is much less conservative when it comes to what they are willing to see on the big screen, however for the Chinese audience, it means the opposite as additional censorship rules are put into play. As “China’s Communist Party bans media content that depicts alcoholism, glorification of evil, ... and anything that harms public morality from being shown in China, the wide range of restrictions has caught Hollywood’s attention as the Chinese film market grows” (Khurana). Social progress is clearly something that China intends to keep tabs on for as long as they can, which can also be depicted in which Western films aren’t allowed. The 2017 blockbuster hit Call Me By Your Name was pulled out of the Beijing International Film Festival, as “this movie was in deviation from the policy environment in China” claimed a film analyst in an interview by Time Magazine. As this film is centered around a LGBTQ relationship, something that isn’t as widely approved in China, it fell under the list of controversial films and faced the consequences. With the shift of regulations to be under the Communist party themselves, “the decision to drop the film comes amid the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening grip across all aspects of society, including stricter regulations of media and entertainment” (Barron). Even for a film like Christopher Robin, which was banned with the claim that the character Winnie the Pooh was “ridicule of the country’s leader” (McDonell), it is clear the officials are cracking down on any slight details of offense to the government and people in power.

Similar to how many Chinese directors were forced to make changes to their films in order for them to be approved under China’s regulations, the same applies for foreign filmmakers if they want their work to reach the growing Chinese film market. For other foreign films, many edits were forced to be made if the film wanted any chance of being screened in China. In an NPR podcast by Frank Langfitt titled “How China’s Censors Influence Hollywood,” he talks about how a simple panning scene of Shanghai showed underwear hanging from a clothesline in the 2003 movie Mission: Impossible III was ordered to be cut as “the censors felt that it did not portray Shanghai in a positive light” (qtd. in Langfitt) as hanging clothes on the balcony was considered an act of the past. For the Film Bureau to cut such simple scenes like these, clearly shows China’s growing power both domestically and internationally is showing a clear domination over society.

With such a powerful force hovering over all content being released to the public, many of the problems that are happening in society are often time suppressed and forgotten as there is no one to pay attention to them. However, with the emergence of a new generation of directors, came the appearance of many films surrounding certain issues that were considered taboo at that time. From To Live to Blind Shaft, the 1990s to the early 2000s was a time of breakthrough in films produced with major social commentary. However, because of the strict regulations in China, these films were more widely received by the foreign audience. Yet, by exposing such issues to the rest of the world, in a way it was still bringing light to problems that may never have been known otherwise. In his movies Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, Zhang Yimou cleverly portrayed societal issues through a veil of symbolism and pleasing imagery. On the surface, To Live seems purely as the story of a family living in the 1940s through the Cultural Revolution, however, by breaking the film apart into distinct components, it becomes a story of anti-communism and depiction of the struggles people were facing during a supposedly peaceful time. A major example of this would have been when Fugui first explains to his son, “Our family is like a little chicken. When it grows up, it becomes a goose. And that’ll turn into a sheep. The sheep will turn into an ox… After the ox is Communism. And there will be dumplings and meat everyday” (To Live), representing Fugui’s belief that the emergence of Communism is the solution to their suffering. However, at the end, Fugui’s speech shifts to “The chickens will turn into geese and the geese will turn into sheep and the sheep will turn into oxen” where he then pauses and Jiazhen is the one who responds that “Little Bun will be grown up” (To Live). With this parallel of speech but the exclusion of Communism as the final answer, it is Zhang Yimou’s way of showing Fugui’s loss of faith in the Communist movement and that it may not be the solution to all problems. Unsurprisingly, because of these underlying themes, To Live was banned for the Chinese audience as it was deemed to be negatively portraying the Communist government and Zhang Yimou was then banned from releasing his films domestically.

Contrasting, director Li Yang depicted distinct social problems by showing them in their true form: a harsh reality. Unlike Zhang Yimou who subtly incorporated social issues, in his film Blind Shaft, Li Yang blatantly points out these issues. Furthermore, Zhang Yimou had commented more on general problems that everyday people were facing in China, while Li Yang chose to bring out problems that weren’t as publicly known, which may have been why Li Yang chose to formulate his films without the fancy entertainment elements that Zhang Yimou and other directors during that time had incorporated to keep their audience entertained. The 2003 movie Blind Shaft, Li Yang depicts the life of two coal workers who exploit the coal mining system to earn additional money for their families and themselves. Though their way of earning the money is seemingly too cruel to really happen in real life, it gives the audience a taste of the corruption of underground work as their workers stoop to such a low level just to survive.

Of the three major films Li Yang released, both Blind Shaft and Blind Mountain were immediately banned for the Chinese audience, however, Blind Way, the most recent film of the three successfully passed. But of the three that equally comment on the underlying social problems, what had changed? In an ABC interview with the director, Li Yang explained how in order for his film to be approved “about 40 percent of my film disappeared.” He continued to voiced his opinion that “as an artist, I want to fully express myself, not be interfered by the political or money reasons” (qtd. in Carney) however, in order for his movie Blind Way to reach a greater audience, Li Yang had to make many sacrifices to his original vision. Not only does this show that regulations these directors face, but it also shows the reality that filmmaking is a difficult task within itself as every move is being watched. As China is one of the largest box office sources, not being able to show the film for the Chinese audience gravely hurts the reception of the film. In addition, by creating such a film that supposedly shows China in a negative way, these directors are at a high risk of being banned from making any film at all, which adds to their struggles. Unfortunately, for the film crew, that only gives them two options: lose their social voices or conform to the regulations of censorship.

Despite the fact that these films were either banned completely or forced to be altered to be able to be shown in the Chinese cinemas, they were able to make a more global impact, and one that made others more socially aware. For the Western audience to have seen these films, it gave these directors another chance to showcase their intended messages for the recognition that these issues do exist, therefore making people more socially aware in general. By exposing the existence of these issues to a global audience, it holds the Chinese government accountable as the world becomes a witness. Furthermore, because many of these films are only banned from being publicly screened in China, there are still many other ways for the Chinese audience to obtain these films. Many of the times people who are aware that something is purposely being hidden from them tend to try and seek it out more, which in the end is counterintuitive as people can still find the films and learn from them. As films such as To Live and Blind Shaft were so widely received by the foreign audience, it brought attention back to China’s problems, which shows the voice of the people can become a powerful thing.

The censorship process is clearly being treated as a living document as it is constantly being edited. But what’s the point of all these modifications? With each new addition to the system, it is evolving to be more strict as the government is taking greater effort in ensuring that people only received the information the officials wanted them to know. As each decade brings its own innovations, the people have more access to knowledge that they wouldn’t have been able to learn before, which is clearly taking a toll on the government as they strive to suppress opposing views, and the only way they can respond is to impose more rules in hopes that the public backs down. Yet, when pushed too hard, everything has a breaking point, something that is becoming more apparent as the people become restless. Directors such as Zhang Yimou and Li Yang have already taken the first step in raising awareness of public issues so what is next? Though there has been an apparent increase of stricter regulations in the past years, the stricter these rules become, it may just push the limit and spark a change for China’s film censorship system as a whole.

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