China nixes film ratings, restates censor role

SARFT vice minister sees more cinemas, cheaper tickets

BEIJING – China said Thursday that it will not introduce a ratings system for movies any time soon and reiterated the central government’s role in the reform and development of the cultural and entertainment sectors.

Ranking officials who oversee film, television and publishing declared these sectors important to China’s economic growth, one day after its economy overtook Japan’s as the world's second-largest.

Madame Zhao Shi, vice minister of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, said at a news conference that China would not introduce film ratings despite industry pressure to allow a swelling middle class the right to choose its big screen entertainment.

“We will accelerate production of cultural products to contribute to a moderately comfortable society in keeping with the core values of our socialist society,” said Zhao, referring to a middle class whose spending helped “Avatar” gross nearly $200 million in China earlier this year, more than in any other territory after the U.S.

While 20-plus imports are allowed to share in China’s growing boxoffice revenue each year, other movies are rejected on the basis that they don’t pass muster under the country’s opaque censorship rules.  Each film script, domestic or imported, must be reviewed and approved by SARFT.

Zhao said the idea of a ratings system -- proposed a few times previously at an annual gathering of citizen-expert consultants to the government -- was a non-starter.

“Such a system has been exercised in many countries around the world, but in China we’ve studied the issue and our results show that though, in theory, such a system is conducive to offering a variety of films to new consumers, practically speaking there’s no success even in the most developed markets at preventing young people from accessing inappropriate films at Internet cafes and even in cinemas,” she said. “That’s why we don’t think that now is such a time to introduce a ratings system to China’s market.”

Typically, movie violence, sex and some supernatural themes are left on the censors’ cutting room floor. Their exclusion drives a growing public taste for all three in illegitimate media, such as in the pirated online and DVD markets still thriving in China despite years of crackdowns.

Overlooking that China already is consuming violence, sex and vampires on its small screens, since citizens here make up the largest online and mobile phone communities in the world, Sun Zhijun, vice minister of party propaganda, said that China “cannot attain economic returns at the cost of bad cultural effects.”

Asked about the explosion of reality television dating shows that promote material wealth among contestants, Sun said it was Beijing’s goal to encourage the development of “fine and classical products as the symbols of our country’s culture.”

Beginning with reforms in 2003, Beijing moved to encourage the privatization of cultural industries by allowing more cooperation with international partners. Hollywood studios have made multiple attempts to access China’s restricted entertainment market to considerable effect, but Sun and others on the dais Thursday repeatedly referred to the bad influence of imported culture.

“Certain [Chinese] companies have created low-taste products to cater to and attract a greater share of the market,” Sun said. “This is because of the impact of external culture, and is something we need to focus on in the next stage of reform.”

In a clear reminder to be diligent self-censors, Sun said he hoped all Chinese media organizations would work with the government to “reject cultural waste."

In order to continue to develop the film industry, which had a boxoffice gross of 6.2 billion yuan ($909 million) last year, up from 4 billion yuan in 2002, Zhao said China would focus on building more cinemas in small- and medium-sized markets. China added 596 screens from Jan. to June, a number equal to the total added in 2009, but, Zhao said, the market “still lags behind demand.”

With more cinemas in competition, high-priced movie tickets would get cheaper, she said, adding that “non-profit” Tuesdays, when cinemas typically charge half-price, would continue for now. Zhao also said the government would “encourage more art house cinemas.”

In June, SARFT was cited as the second-most corrupt of China’s government agencies by the Tsinghua University Anti-corruption and Governance Research Center. The center said that SARFT had not accounted for 144.67 million yuan since 2008.

Ouyang Jian, vice minister of culture, said at Thursday’s conference that Beijing had directed the “acceleration of law enforcement in the cultural sector.”
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