Censorship sounds like something that only takes place under the cover of night, executed by faceless authorities who strike without logic or warning. According to Robert Cain, who's been making movies in China for 25 years, that's not (entirely) the case. While the Chinese censorship industry has its spies, it also has official rules created by people who have a vested interest in seeing films made in what will soon be the world's largest film territory. Cain originally published this piece on his blog, chinafilmbiz; he's kindly allowed us to publish it at Indiewire.
Whenever I make the rounds in Hollywood to talk with producers and studio executives about China, one of the most common questions — and complaints — I hear is about censorship. It’s not just the fact of censorship that confuses and rankles people; it's also the lack of transparency and seeming arbitrariness of the permitting and distribution approval processes.
But there’s really not much point in complaining. Censorship is a hard reality of the movie business in China. If you want to shoot or distribute films in the People’s Republic—the fastest growing and soon to be the largest film territory in the world—you’ll have to deal with censorship and you’d better know the rules.
So herewith, a brief primer on censorship in China.
Western ratings systems like the one administered by the MPAA start with the premise that adults should be free to view whatever content they wish; ratings exist mainly to shelter children from inappropriate sexual and violent images. In China, it’s a whole different ball game. Censorship there is designed not only to protect the innocent, but even more to protect the status quo of authoritarian rule. No distinction is made between children and adults; the government holds the ultimate right to decide what content is ‘appropriate’ and therefore available for viewing, irrespective of the viewer’s age.
The process of enforcing media censorship in China falls to the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, a powerful branch of the government which controls the content of all radio, film, television, satellite and internet broadcasts in China. Within SARFT there is a committee of 30 or so staff who oversee movie censorship.
These 30 individuals come from a broad array of backgrounds, including the film industry, the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, and various government departments. They are divided into various areas of authority. International co-productions, for example, are handled by a small group of three or four staffers.
The principal aims of the censorship system are to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony. SARFT upholds these values by subjecting each and every film, beginning with the script, to a three-step process:
If the filmmakers disagree with the results of the review process, they can apply for an additional review.
SARFT doesn’t typically tell filmmakers what they should do; it advises them as to what they can’t do. The list of taboo topics starts with sex and violence, and extends to obscenity, religion, superstition, gambling, drinking, drug abuse, and criminal activity. Any story element that is not rooted in scientific fact, like time travel or ghosts, is also likely to fall to the censor’s axe. And of course any hint of criticism of the Communist party, its leadership or its legitimacy is strictly prohibited.
SARFT’s Ten Commandments of Chinese Film Censorship
I often joke with friends who run their screenplays by me that, according to the government, nothing bad or subversive ever happens in the modern-day communist utopia that is China. If you want to explore any salacious topics, either set them somewhere else, or in some cases, you can set them in the past.
See, before the Communist party took power in 1949, violence, crime, and—gasp!—even drinking occurred in China. Apparently, the pre-communist rulers were not sufficiently enlightened to prevent such unsavory behavior. For films set in the past, SARFT allows a bit more creative leeway (though not a lot). The reason so many period martial arts movies get made is that they are censor-friendly; a pre-1949 kung-fu punch is viewed very differently than a post-1949 one.
The censorship review process can be baffling to those not familiar with it. Fortunately, SARFT from time to time provides guidelines that take some of the mystery out of their judgments. In 2008 they offered the following codification of film taboos:
Films containing any of the following content must be cut or altered:
But even this detailed list doesn’t cover it all. Censors have wide-ranging powers, and the rules seem to keep shifting. And censorship doesn’t just end at the script stage. I learned the hard way that when you’re shooting a film in China, there are eyes and ears everywhere.
One small slip for a film, one giant slap for the filmmakers
Back in 2006, I was on set in Shanghai for a romantic comedy I’d helped set up. One of the film’s scenes, a romantic conversation between the two leads, took place in a movie theater. The director shot five or six takes and decided he had what he needed. As it was the end of our shooting day and we were feeling punchy, someone tossed out the idea that we shoot one more ‘comedic’ take. So we shot the scene again but this time with an extra in the background, camcorder in hand, acting as though he was a theater patron taping the film off the movie screen.
We quickly shot that take and wrapped for the day. What we didn’t know was that there was a spy in our crew, a plant from SARFT or some other government entity, who dutifully reported to the local authorities that our film contained a scene which made the ‘subversive’ suggestion that there were film pirates operating in China.
The next day, before our morning call, we were summoned to the office of a powerful Shanghai party member who advised us that our movie was being shut down. He said that our depiction of an act of piracy was “naive” and “untruthful” and damaging to China and to the Communist party. We would have to pack up and leave the country without being able to finish our film.
After we spent that entire day begging and pleading ignorance and promising to be on our best behavior, we were fortunate enough to get the party member turned around, and he gave us permission to continue shooting. We never did find out who the spy was, but we learned a costly lesson about discretion in China and the importance of maintaining appearances, even if those ‘appearances’ weren’t true.
It’s important to mention here that, while the system may seem draconian, the reality is that censorship in China is guided by flesh-and-blood human beings who often want to help. Our Shanghai party member was not so rigid that he couldn’t see we had made an honest and admittedly dumb mistake. And the SARFT committee members actually do want to see films get made; they allowed more than 500 to shoot in China in 2010 alone.
My Chinese filmmaker friends don’t like censorship any more than my Hollywood filmmaker friends do. Some in China speak out boldly against it; prominent directors like Jia Zhangke and Feng Xiaogang have stated publicly that the censorship system is a form of “cultural naivete” that “does great damage to film production.”
But the truth remains that no matter who you are, if you want to play in China, you’re going to have to play by China’s rules. For now and the foreseeable future that means subordinating your creative freedoms to the political and social imperatives of China’s government. If you can pull off the trick of telling stories that adhere to censorship strictures while still entertaining the mainstream Chinese audience, the financiers, the distributors, and even the government officials, will beat a path to your door.
Robert Cain, partner in film coproduction company Pacific Bridge Pictures, has been doing business in China since 1987. He is a graduate of Harvard and holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.