Analysis: What China's New President Means for the Entertainment Industry

Peter Muhly/Getty Images

He loves Hollywood war movies, but also detests foreigners “pointing fingers” at China.

HONG KONG – When Xi Jinping arrived in the United States in February 2012, not much was known about China’s then leader-in-waiting. But as his visit ended with the announcement that China would expand its quota of foreign films allowed to screen in the country, many began to feel that the always smiling apparatchik might be a harbinger of good things to come -- especially for Hollywood studios. 

It was no coincidence that Xi was the one to break such positive news during a trip that included a scripted visit to the small Iowa town that once hosted him and a group of fellow low-level party cadres in the 1980s. As he steadily ascended to the pinnacle of power in Beijing over the intermittent months -- a journey that finally drew to a close on Thursday with his appointment as Chinese president by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament -- he’s been carefully positioning himself as the game-changing, human face of a much-maligned regime.

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As the dust finally settles in China on the protracted transition to what is now called the Xi-Li era -- the second surname referring to the newly-appointed premier Li Keqiang, a protege of outgoing president Hu Jintao -- the country’s 1.3 billion-plus population all have the same question in mind: will the new administration live up to its reformist credentials or will it be yet another false dawn to yet another foundering decade of mixed returns and mounting problems, as China experienced under Hu and his premier Wen Jiabao?

Those well-versed with how Beijing operates have noted all the mixed signals that have been given in recent years. Surprisingly liberal-slanted gestures have often been countered the next day by a reactionary clampdown. Commentators at home and in Hollywood were taken aback in 2012, for example, when state broadcaster CCTV screened V for Vendetta – with its down-with-authoritarianism narrative uncut – and then, just a month later, ordered scenes of a Shanghainese doorman being shot removed from the Chinese cut of Skyfall.

The most recent twist in this game of head-scratching inconsistency came on Wednesday, when news broke that Django Unchained was confirmed for commercial release in mainland China in April – the first time an installment in Quentin Tarantino’s confrontational and ultra-violent oeuvre will be unspooled in the country. It is understood that the director himself will be making adjustments to the film so as to clear the country’s censorship board, who previously denied his Kill Bill films a release in the country -- despite the fact that portions were shot in state studios in Beijing.

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Such uncertainty is likely to continue, for the country’s new leader has often offered a discourse filled with contradictions himself.

A so-called “red princeling” -- a term used to describe descendants of revolutionaries who helped establish and held high offices in the People’s Republic -- Xi has shown himself to be a much more open-minded and less secretive character than his predecessor. The townsfolk in Iowa who met Xi in the 1980s have praised his affability and modesty. And reports leaked by Wikileaks revealed how he once told a U.S. diplomat he likes Saving Private Ryan and that he admires Hollywood movies because “good usually prevails.”

But this is also the same man who, in 2009, censured critics for condemning China’s economic policies and human rights record. "Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us," he then said.

The fluctuating state of things is best illustrated by how the state machine, busy maintaining a veneer of harmony and social progress during the annual plenary sessions of the country’s top political bodies, relaxed its control on the media one moment, only to cracked back down within the space of days, or sometimes even hours.

Just as officials were speaking about ushering in an era of transparent governance at a press conferences held inside the Great Hall of the People, several Hong Kong reporters were being attacked by state-employed thugs guarding the entrance to Liu Xia, the house-arrested wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. And at the same time that the authorities were issuing a communique outlining new, increasingly restrictive pre-censorship requirements for television documentaries, Chinese bloggers delightedly discovered that they can now freely access, after three years of the site being blocked in China. 

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Rumors abound about how such contradictions have roots in the internal struggle within the party establishment between progressives and conservatives. The consequences of these behind-the-scenes political power plays have manifested in the film world in the past. Ang Lee’s 2007 film Lust, Caution, for example, was issued a screening license but then immediately yanked from Chinese cinemas, reportedly because of the dissenting voices within the regulative body, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, and disapproval from individual viewers within the ruling elite.

When Xi emerged as the front runner to take over the Chinese leadership a few years ago, rumors circulated about how his ascent was the result of a “compromise” between the factions led by Hu (who had wanted Li Keqiang to take over) and his own predecessor, Jiang Zemin. If that’s true, Xi is expected to be a good cop and a bad cop rolled into one: it’s perhaps less surprising then that he once said The Departed is one of his favorite movies.