China Lifts Ban on IMDb

45 REP IMDB Illustration H IPAD
Illustration: Daniel Bejar

Chinese cinephiles rejoice over regaining access to the Amazon-owned film information portal, which had been blocked in the country for the last three years.

HONG KONG – Chinese censors have ended their three-year block on The country’s cinephiles responded on social media with cheer after regaining access to news and reviews of foreign films, but also expressed doubts about how long this privilege is going to last.

News of Chinese netizens being able to access the Amazon-owned website began to circulate last week, with some quickly commenting on their ability to search for entries of films which have been denied screening licenses by the country’s film regulators – such as Lou Ye’s 2006 Cannes entry Summer Palace, which remains banned in the country because of its scenes depicting the pro-democracy student protests in Beijing in the spring of 1989.

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China’s internet police placed the portal outside its firewall in 2010, reportedly because of the site carrying details of When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun, a documentary about Beijing’s annexation of Tibet in 1950 and its policies towards the region.

Directed by Dirk Simon and soundtracked by an array of big-name musicians such as Philip Glass and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the piece featured the Dalai Lama, a persona non grata of the Chinese government. The authorities never commented publicly about the ban of in the country.

The dominant view in the Chinese blogosphere is a sense of joy, as posters wrote of being able to finally watch trailers of international blockbusters on the website. Some also commented how access to IMDb's user-generated reviews from abroad might signal the end of the common practice of producers employing cyber-warriors to flood Chinese websites with positive notices of their own films and damning put-downs of their rivals.’

“The unblocking of IMDb only reveals one thing: that we couldn’t take domestic films anymore,” wrote a blogger called Warrant for Bad Films. “I guess from now on domestic films which are below par will be held responsible, their directors axed from their jobs and their actors exiled from their positions, never to be assigned a role again.”

Some also noted how the authorities’ move coincided with the annual plenary sessions of China’s top-ranked political bodies, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress. The latter had just anointed Xi Jinping as the new Chinese president, an endgame to a protracted transition of power which many had hoped would bring reforms to a political system still rife with conservatism and corruption.

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“What I am worried is that the site will be blocked in a few days,” wrote blogger Ruoden. Another called "This Morning Frank" was even more skeptical, saying how Chinese netizens “can only rarely get a glimpse of a drop of water, when what is blocked from our view is the wide ocean”.

The unblocking of IMDb is the latest twist in a year of extremely mixed signals from Chinese authorities over the regulation of the media -- most likely because of the increased pressure and internal policy debates that have come with the change of the guard among the country's top leadership.

In late December, the movie channel operated by state broadcaster China Central Television showed V for Vendetta, a film revolving around a masked revolutionary trying to depose an authoritarian government. Just a week later, a provincial propaganda chief forced the editors of a well-known progressive newspaper Southern Weekly to withdraw a pro-reform editorial and replace it with a hardline nationalistic treatise – a move which led to street protests from staff journalists and a wave of supportive tweets from some of the country’s A-list celebrities.

In January, Skyfall was released in China with a scene about the killing of a Chinese doorman removed and certain lines about the villain’s recollections of torture in the hands of Chinese secret police obscured. And last month, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television also issued a communique dictating new regulations in which television documentaries had to be pre-censored before being made.