Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your @#!* Away: The Rules of Film Censorship in China

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By Robert Cain

November 27, 2011

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, but 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.

Gimme shelter

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 (SARFT), 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:

  1. The filmmakers submit their screenplay or finished film to the Censorship Board for review. The board has 15 days to offer a response, though things don’t always move this quickly.
  2. SARFT then offers comments and often suggestions for altering the film to meet censorship requirements. The filmmakers are given the opportunity to make modifications to comply with any requested changes.
  3. The script or film is submitted back to SARFT for review of the changes and an approval decision.

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:

(1) Distorting Chinese civilization and history, seriously departing from historical truth; distorting the history of other countries, disrespecting other civilizations and customs; disparaging the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and important historical figures; tampering with Chinese or foreign classics and distorting the image of the important figures portrayed therein;
2)  Disparaging the image of the people’s army, armed police, public security organ or judiciary;
(3)  Showing obscene and vulgar content, exposing scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogues, songs, background music and sound effects;
(4)  Showing contents of murder, violence, terror, ghosts and the supernatural; distorting value judgment between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, righteous and unrighteous; showing deliberate expressions of remorselessness in committing crimes; showing specific details of criminal behaviours; exposing special investigation methods; showing content which evokes excitement from murder, bloodiness, violence, drug abuse and gambling; showing scenes of mistreating prisoners, torturing criminals or suspects; containing excessively horror scenes, dialogues, background music and sound effects;
(5)  Propagating passive or negative outlook on life, world view and value system; deliberately exaggerating the ignorance of ethnic groups or the dark side of society;
(6)  Advertising religious extremism, stirring up ambivalence and conflicts between different religions or sects, and between believers and non-believers, causing disharmony in the community;
(7)  Advocating harm to the ecological environment, animal cruelty, killing or consuming nationally protected animals;
(8)   Showing excessive drinking, smoking and other bad habits;
(9)  Opposing the spirit of law.
Source: SARFT

But even this detailed list doesn’t cover it all. Censors have wide-ranging powers, and the rules 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 to set up. One of the film’s scenes, a romantic conversation between the two leads, took place in a movie theater. The director shot 5 or 6 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 is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.

16 thoughts on “Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your @#!* Away: The Rules of Film Censorship in China

    • Thanks, Bill. True, but I’m not one to sugarcoat things. Not everyone has the patience for doing business in China, but that’s one of the reasons there’s so much opportunity there for people who do.

  1. Great write-up, Robert. There seems to be a great opportunity for screenwriters to have their work produced in China, despite their rigid rules. Particularly for those of us who have a ripple of appreciation for the heartwarming, family film.

  2. A useful way to look at this is the old “Hayes Code” in the US movie industry in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and first president Will H. Hays consolidated and synthesized the restrictions and eliminations that had been deemed necessary by state and foreign censors and, in 1927, produced a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” to govern production. Members agreed to specifically avoid 11 objectionable topics and to treat 26 others with care and good taste.
    We’ve been there, done that, all for good reason at the time.

    Same in China – the underlying thinking is sound, it is just the working out of it that can sometimes be problematic.

    Self-censorship is the best policy of all. But as the pornography industry has so amply demonstrated, most people are incapable of self-censorship.

  3. Lovely write up Rob! Many cheers on perhaps shooting your own foot in some ways! But of course you know that! Better to be aware than having your foot shot off by a landmine nobody ever saw.

    This makes me think, however, in hindsight, how many films that came out of Hollywood last year would have come out unscathed if set and shot in China! Perhaps all the family films will, and genuine imagination oriented true story cinema, of course, that is timeless, and devoid of any culturally overbearing moorings.

    One way of seeing this is of course as a creative challenge. I am sure I could tell a universal story with all the discipline required to pass Chinese censorship. But would I do that knowing there is a sword dangling over my neck? Perhaps if the threat element is assuaged, some genuinely good stories can come out of this compelling system of prevention.

    However, in a world that is increasingly liberal in its outlook towards consumption, China I’m afraid is leaving itself behind in many ways. How would they censor content in the bootleg market? Any Hollywood film can find its way to any Chinese home through the bootleggers! There’s no censoring that! Maybe the real way forward is to make deals with the bootleggers and Chinese censors be damned!

    • Senthil, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I wonder whether I’ve painted too bleak a picture. Censorship undeniably adds a layer of complexity and challenge to filmmaking in China, but it is absolutely possible to make artistically and commercially successful films there.

      Regarding the ubiquitous availability in China of ‘censored’ films via pirating, that’s a worthy topic deserving of a separate article. I wrote about DVD piracy in Shanghai back in 2004; I can send you that article if you like.

      • Thank you Rob! I think you were pragmatic and not really bleak in your perspectives. The challenge I think can be a positive one, and I’m absolutely sure it is possible to make artistically and commercially successful films in China. But I would as an artist, worry about authority, naturally, and also about the stifling of “voice”. It’s a bit like bringing up an entire nation’s kids training them to write with their feet and not allowing them to use their hands. It might produce some great writing, no doubt, because writing is a function of the mind, but what else might it entail?

        Yes, would love that article you wrote in 2004!

  4. Good to see that someone is trying to clear the waters fur many of us in China. I’m sending a script and storyline to HK and Chengdu to see how my changes might be looked upon by people who should know. I just changed the bad guys from Chinese to foreign real estate developers and thugs. As it deals with land lease rights for farmers I believe they could be ebtitled when you consider there are 160 private golf courses planned here in China and a company just bought the lease title to an island in Fujian last month for high end yachting tourism at public auction.
    No sex and minimal violence in context with the poor farmers beating the rich fat cats should work I hope.
    For me these days entertainment is a good story without so much blood, sex and gory details, I’ve seen enough porn etc for 2 lifetimes when I was younger.
    If it can be shown on Youku I think it will pass SARFT, check out CASTLE series under United States TV on Youku for a great crime series, 23 eps and great entertainment.
    I think it’s all about context for SARFT and have no problem dealing with that, just wish I could speak Chinese so I could explain it to them

  5. Here is the funny part…They show all the movies from America there?! Unsensored?! At the video store outlets?! But at least we know what they willnot do so this will tell us what we can do?!

  6. A friendly alternative with a little less headache – go to Mumbai, set a film in India, with Indian money! There is a fair amount of money in Mumbai wanting to move out of Hindi product, because “Bollywood” isn’t yielding that much the last three years. No big censorship issues there either! And your film can be in English. India and Australia are about to sign a co-production agreement too. So you can set your film in Australia and attract Indian money with those tax incentives too. Yea Mate, that can be in English as well!

  7. Dear Sir,

    I have trouble to understand why you use traditional Chinese characters to describe a blog about China’s film business.

    “中國電影業務” is more appropriately written “中国电影业务”

    Thank you for your interesting website.

  8. I actually can’t see anything wrong with the chinese censor’s methodology. U.S. society is crumbling because filmmakers can make anything they want, whether it sets a bad example for fatherless boys or shows us how terrible life is – no censorship at all is pretty much the rule.

    • US society is crumbling because of filmmakers?!! How come none of the bad guys escape punishment in the movies but people in the real world never get the message? I’d say filmmakers are trying hard to keep people moral! It is art’s job to ask questions and seek the truth, not establish or profess it. Art should have nothing to do with authority or control. If any government has anything to fear from art, there is always a very good chance it is doing something against human nature and it means its people have no confidence in their ability to function fairly or equitably in the collective. Fear and ignorance have always been humanity’s greatest enemies, not artistic expression.

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