Why does China like to censor things?

China introduces etiquette for artists

Deviant or inappropriate behavior is not welcome in the Middle Kingdom. The individual has to subordinate himself to the common good - and how this good should look is determined by the Communist Party. "It sees itself as a kind of civilizing regime and aims to educate the population morally," says Björn Alpermann, sinologist and professor for contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Würzburg.

"Love the party and serve socialism"

Since March 1st, there have been special rules of conduct for an entire branch of the profession: In future, China's artists will be guided by a guide with 15 instructions in order - according to the official declaration - to increase the quality of the performances and to put the employees in a positive light and advance the development of the industry.

Not only actors, but also singers, magicians, comedians and even acrobats are affected by the rules. One of the most important commandments is the "love of the party and its principles" and the service to "the people and socialism".

The Communist Party also regulates the social behavior of the population

For Björn Alpermann, this announcement by the government is no surprise: "I see the actions of the artists' association against the background of a very hard line in social policy under Xi Jinping," he says. "Entrepreneurs, academics and other professional groups that the party sees as potentially dangerous have also been the target of such campaigns in recent years and months." In the case of the artists, there is also the fact that there have been a number of scandals in their ranks recently, he adds. "The party sees them as having a special duty to be moral role models because they have such a large fan base."

Public repentance is a duty

In the eyes of the party, one of the country's most popular actresses recently failed miserably as a role model: Prada advertising character Zheng Shuang, who turned the "Chinese people" against her with a surrogate mother affair after she had two babies born in the USA did not want to accept. She lost all contracts - as did her fellow actor and singer Fan Bingbing, who had already become a persona non grata in 2018: China's formerly best-paid actress - also from films like "X-Men: Future is Past" and "Iron Man 3" to western audiences known - had evaded the equivalent of 111 million euros in taxes. In 2013, according to Alpermann, star director Zhang Yimou had to pay a fine of 900,000 euros for violating the one-child policy and having three children.

Starry or misconduct are prohibited in China: Fan Bingbing fell out of favor for tax evasion

All three have apologized to the Chinese public for their wrongdoing, because "public regrets and contrite confessions on television are always part of China," Alpermann told DW. Behind this is the hope of being received again in grace. It always doesn't work. "It depends on how important a certain person is for the regime. The party is opportunistic and looks at the people's opinion." Zhang Yimou was allowed to return to the Olympus of cultural workers, while dispensable artists are completely dropped.

Social control is part of everyday life in China

The new etiquette now makes it explicitly clear what the party expects from its artists. Those who consume drugs or drive a car while drunk are of course on the index - but those who "mislead consumers by appearing in commercials" or "pursue religious practices" are also punished. And: It is forbidden to shoot scenes of violence on the screen in which injured bodies could be seen.

Anyone who denigrates Chinese history or does not accept "ethnic unity" is also guilty - which is supposed to prevent solidarity with Tibetans, Uyghurs and other persecuted minorities.

One of the few Chinese world successes: "The Red Lantern" (1991) by star director Zhang Yimou

The new guiding rules are monitored by an ethics committee with "exemplary artists". Anyone who violates them can expect to be banned from the profession for up to five years; In the case of particularly serious misconduct, there is even a threat of a lifelong ban. Three months before the end of their forced time-out, those affected can apply for reintegration - voluntary work for the well-being of the national community and "professional" follow-up training should then bring the delinquents back on the right track.

Such practices of social control are nothing new to the Chinese, according to Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the US in Washington. The American worked for the embassy in Beijing for a long time and also appeared in a Chinese television series in 1993. Artists have been the focus of the party since Mao's time, he says. "And Xi Jinping once again affirmed: Art must serve socialism."

Image promotion with a cultural soft power strategy

The fact that the cinema industry in particular is under particular scrutiny has something to do with its role as a central component in the Chinese campaign in the matter of "Ruan Shili", the "soft power strategy" - that is, China's claim to its position in the Cementing the world because of its foreign policy and its culture. And right now the People's Republic is bursting with power. Despite all human rights violations, the world seems to shrink back from the economic giant. This is also becoming more and more powerful in the film business: For the first time in 2020, Chinese box office sales were higher than those in North America. Even if that is - still - mainly due to the pandemic. The historical epic about the Sino-Japanese war, "The Eight Hundred", staged in Mandarin, grossed around 370 million euros in China from September 2020 until now, despite Corona.

The war drama "The Eight Hundred" tells of Chinese heroism

"Investments in the film industry are clearly part of the toolkit of the Chinese propaganda department," says Björn Alpermann. It was not until 2018 that the entrepreneur Wang Jianlin built the world's most modern studio site with 40 film studios for around 6.5 billion euros. Two years earlier he had acquired the Californian film studio Legendary Entertainment for 3.2 billion euros, where the blockbuster "Jurassic World" and the "Batman" trilogy were produced. The Chinese group "Alibaba" is cooperating with Steven Spielberg's company "Amblin Partners". Western know-how is in demand in China, but there are also desires in the opposite direction. Hollywood has long been looking at the People's Republic with around 1.44 billion inhabitants - a more than profitable market for US studios.

Hollywood's kowtow against China's censors

The apparently lucrative business has a catch: only 34 foreign productions are allowed to be shown in Chinese cinemas each year - and they first have to be censored, in other words: They must not "violate China's national dignity, honor and interests". "1997 was the last year that the big studios in the States were still making films that Beijing considered 'anti-Chinese'," says Robert Daly. These included Martin Scorsese's "Kudun" and Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet" - both works criticized the People's Republic's brutal invasion of the Himalayan country. "China punished Hollywood for these productions," said Daly. "Since then, studio bosses have been reluctant to give the green light to a film that might displease China's censors.

Robert Daly lived in Beijing for a long time, is fluent in Chinese and has even had a television role there

Instead, China already has a decisive influence on which films are actually made in Hollywood. So it's no wonder that China ultimately saves the world in "The Martian", the insubordinate Taiwan patch on Tom Cruise's leather jacket had to be removed in "Misson Impossible" and the James Bond flick 'Skyfall' had to be completely re-cut for the Chinese market has been.

In 2017, the most expensive Chinese-American co-production to date, "The Great Wall", started. The script comes from Hollywood professionals, star director Zhang Yimou shot the action spectacle. Most of the actors are Chinese, but Matt Damon and William Dafoe have also signed two stars of US cinema.

"Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing"

In their report "Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing", the authors' association PEN America chalked up the unfortunate companionship of such co-productions: US studios, so the accusation, would even invite Chinese censors to the set and cast the roles in advance obedience as well as adapting the content to the needs of the Asians.

The US Congress is deeply concerned about this development, says Robert Daly. One would like to pass a law against it, but that is difficult. "Films in the US are made by independent, commercially operated studios that chase after profit - including in China. But the US government cannot and must not discipline culture." However, he adds, congressmen have criticized the Disney group for working closely with the authorities in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang on the film "Mulan" - the region where one million Uyghurs are imprisoned according to the United Nations.

The Disney film "Mulan", specially tailored for the Chinese market, flopped with the audience

"Disney ignored these allegations because it couldn't bring anything to its defense," Daly told DW. "The company suffered a commercial flop because it made a bad film. But it doesn't pay a political price for kowtowing Beijing."

Who will be No. 1 in the film business?

The euphoria about a lucrative collaboration has meanwhile subsided, because films that Hollywood shot especially with Chinese motifs, actors and even advertisements for Chinese products have not been as lucrative as hoped. Which probably has to do with the fact that western producers don't necessarily tell a good Chinese story.

Conversely, Chinese productions are likely to find it difficult to be accepted in the West. "If an Asian film like 'Parasite' by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho tells a great story, it hits everywhere," says Daly. "China, too, has world-class directors and actors that the world could benefit from. But under the Communist Party, they don't produce art, they produce propaganda and lousy films."

Daly sums up that China has the money and the will to become No. 1 in the film business at the box office in the future. "But when it comes to reflecting the human spirit and society in work, artists will have the edge in free societies."