Scripts of films dealing with ‘significant topics’ must be submitted to government officials for approval
In Hollywood, they make movies to make money. In China, there’s an extra hurdle: to serve “the people and socialism, prioritize social benefit, and coordinate social and economic effects.”
So says the new “film industry promotion law” approved this month by the National People’s Congress standing committee.
The law contains a series of measures to strengthen China’s film industry, including easing the approval process for film permits, beefing up government subsidies for Chinese films and requiring local theaters to reserve at least two-thirds of their screening time for domestic productions.
But while the law is aimed at improving conditions for Chinese filmmakers, it also includes provisions that some say only makes practicing their art more difficult.
Scripts of films dealing with “significant topics” including national security, diplomacy, ethnic groups, religion and the military must be submitted to government officials in advance for approval. Films deemed to incite “ethnic hatred and discrimination against ethnic customs, distort national history or national historical figures, hurt national sentiments and undermine national unity” are barred outright.
Also prohibited are films that “propagate cult and superstition” or “promote pornography, gambling, drug abuse, violence, terror, or … teach criminal methods.”
In many respects, the law codifies censorship practices that were already in effect. But by legally defining which topics are off limits, filmmakers will be more constrained from exploring themes the government frowns on.
“Now there are laws to abide by for regulators when punishing filmmakers who are defined as violators,” said Fan Popo, a Beijing-based filmmaker and gay-rights activist. Mr. Fan, who is worried the new law could have a chilling effect on independent films, directed the documentary “Mama Rainbow,” in which Chinese mothers describe the experiences of their gay children coming out. The film has been blocked by most video-streaming sites in China.
Others complained that the law isn’t specific enough, allowing government censors to continue determining what is acceptable, and what isn’t.
Topics ranging from gay marriage to extramarital affairs to the supernatural, for example, aren’t specifically barred by the law, but some filmmakers say there is an unwritten code against these topics.
“These lines do not have much value for industry people,” said Xu Xiaolei, a Beijing-based film producer. “Because local filmmakers are already fully aware that this content would not pass censors.”
China’s top media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, will be the agency primarily responsible for enforcing the law. It didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Zheng Houzhe, a Beijing-based film and TV business lawyer, said the process should be more transparent.
“The censorship process can be quite mysterious and no one outside really know how the decisions are made by the censors,” Mr. Zheng said. “People can only draw lessons from previous cases for those unwritten rules.”
The new law also allows provincial government censors to clear films not deemed as sensitive for national release.
Mr. Zheng said that could lead filmmakers to seek approval in regions deemed friendlier to filmmakers. Shanghai, for example, is known to have a more open-minded, less bureaucratic reputation.
“It would be inevitable that the producers will vote with their feet for a more friendly development space,” said Mr. Zheng.
The new film law is expected to go into effect next March to give regulatory agencies time to adapt their procedures to the new law.