China Tightens TV Censorship after Cleavage Controversies

Empress of China - H 2015

New rules may require some Chinese shows to delay broadcasts by as much as six months.

At its raunchiest, Chinese period drama The Empress of China was something like an East Asian Game of Thrones — rated PG13 — but it seems even that was too much for the Middle Kingdom's censors.

China's state media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), is tightening up censorship of TV soaps and dramas to ensure that costumes remains decidedly demure and storylines hew towards "socialist core values" rather than courtly innuendo.

The new censorship rules, which are due to come into effect this month, could delay broadcasts for some Chinese shows as much as six months, according to Week in China.

China's ongoing morality campaign, initiated by Chinese president Xi Jinping himself, reached a fever pitch at the start of the year when The Empress of China was abruptly pulled from the air one week after its debut. Reportedly China's most expensive TV drama ever made, the show dramatizes the life of China's only female emperor, who ruled during the Tang Dyansty (618 to 907). Chinese star Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past) lead the largely female cast as Empress Wu — and the unmistakably revealing period wear of the leader and her coterie elicited a fervent fan response (a Tang Dynasty Wonderbra was a missed merchandising opportunity). Reports that the actresses' low-cut dresses gave one of the show's cameramen a nosebleed during filming went viral, and the first episode broke ratings records. But satellite station Hunan TV pulled it from the air the next week, citing "technical reasons." When re-cut episodes returned to TV shortly after, they were made up mostly of establishing shots and closeups that showed only the actresses' faces. Authories said they had removed "some unhealthy images for minors." Fans were outraged. 

In February, the TV series The Investiture of the Gods, starring actress Li Yixiao as a mythical fox spirit in low-cut attire, was subjected to similar "adjustments." 

The new rules are targeted at China's private satellite broadcasters, which are known for pushing the boundaries of what the communist party considers good decorum. The regulations require any show broadcast on satellite TV to be reviewed first by the provincial broadcasting bureaus, then submitted to their regional propaganda departments for further inspection, before getting yet another review by SAPPRFT. The added layers of oversight are expected to considerably lengthen the time it takes for shows to reach the air, while also resulting in heavier censorship.

The leadership of the Communist Party of China has been promoting conservatism in media, art and entertainment for at least a year. In a major speech on the arts given last year, but unveiled in full just today, President Xi instructed artists, authors and filmmakers to create works that are "morally inspiring, in order to serve the people and socialism and to present socialist core values."

Hollywood films and TV shows came under stricter oversight last year, when China cracked down on the country's online streaming video services, which had previously been given a freer hand. Shows as innocuous as The Big Bang Theory and The Practice were subsequently pulled.