Hollywood Skeptical as China Claims Relaxed Censorship Enforcement

Tiny Times Film Still - H 2013

A vague message promises looser restrictions on "ordinary topics," but some fear the uncertainty more.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

To many in China and Hollywood, the message seemed too good to be true: In an announcement on its official online portal July 17, the Chinese government stated that its State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television no longer will demand that filmmakers working on projects about "ordinary topics" secure full script approval before going into production. The move appeared to fly in the face of the strict censorship regime that has dictated the media and entertainment seen by China's booming population.

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Some of the country's leading filmmakers have voiced support, but others are frustrated by the message's vagueness, particularly when it comes to defining "ordinary topics." When an official spokesman elaborated by saying the new guidelines will not apply to films touching on "ethnic, religious and foreign-affairs issues," director Jia Zhangke tweeted, "What can I do, as all my films involve the Han?" (The Han are China's largest and most dominant ethnic group.)

Some worry the new uncertainty might actually create an even bigger risk for filmmakers. In a report on the online portal of the state-published People's Daily, director Zhang Qi said no longer knowing what censors think beforehand means films and TV shows could be barred from screening after completion. Many in China believe that even the authorities are not sure how the new rules will work. For instance, a People's Daily article recently lambasted the current blockbuster Tiny Times for celebrating materialism only a few weeks after authorities had greenlighted the film's sequel.

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Not everyone is critical of the new rules, however. Peter Chan, director of the recent hit American Dreams in China, tells THR that while the announcement is frustratingly ambiguous, it represents a step forward. "I was quite surprised that some of the content [in American Dreams] passed the censors," he says. "It's evident that there are gradual changes. Slowly, censorship is changing."

Agrees Larry Namer, the E! Entertainment Television founder who has spent the past few years in China working on local TV projects, "As usual they do things in controlled, toe-in-the-water ways, leaving themselves room to adjust."