China wants soft power. But censorship is stifling its film industry
Beijing-based film director Huang Han has had one of the worst weeks of his life, courtesy of the Chinese government's strict censors.
He says his independent, low-budget romance flick, set for an online domestic release in 2019, has been hit by an insoluble problem: how to show the male protagonist smoking without giving the cigarette screen time.
It might seem like a bizarre problem but a crackdown on "excessive smoking scenes" is just one of a growing number of restrictions imposed by the Chinese Communist Party on the country's film and television industry.
"The government's inspection of films has been getting stricter," says Huang, 30, who spoke under a pseudonym to avoid damaging his career. "Only the really famous directors might get a pass. All the rest of us have to follow strict protocol."
In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for a stronger national effort to boost China's global popularity in proportion to its economic rise. "We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China's message to the world," he said.
Last month, China had an unexpected win in this arena, after Netflix announced that it would stream Chinese sci-fi blockbuster "The Wandering Earth," which grossed nearly $700 million at the global box office, in more than 190 countries.
But that's a rare case of a Chinese hit at home making it abroad.
Unless the Communist Party relaxes its censorship of domestic films, experts say Beijing's dreams of wielding Chinese soft power globally through its film industry could stall.
Matthias Niedenführ, media specialist at the University of Tubingen's China Center, says a top-down government-dictated approach is unlikely to produce popular international hits.
"French film, Korean TV and Japanese anime are all creative products that are the result of a creative environment and bottom-up processes," he says. "The irony is that China desperately wants international recognition."
Hip-hop, tattoos and blurred ears
The steady encroachment of censorship has been sapping Chinese filmmakers' creativity for years.
Western lifestyles, cleavage, homosexuality and time travel were strongly discouraged in guidelines laid out in 2016. Then in January 2018, China's censorship bureau, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), launched an attack on the country's burgeoning sub-cultures.
In a directive, all state broadcasters were banned from employing any performers who promoted "decadent culture," and the portrayal of hip-hop and tattoos was strongly condemned.
In January 2019, Chinese regulators appeared to begin blurring the ears of men who were wearing earrings.
Huang says these restrictions have stifled a range of genres that were previously guaranteed money-makers, such as Japanese-style horror movies, his own specialty.
"Superstitions are not well received during inspection (of a film). An unofficial rule is that ghosts are only allowed to appear if a character is dreaming," he says.
"Censors now expect films to have a strong educational component, that can provide positive energy for young Chinese."
"Positive energy" is a catch-all term, commonly used by Chinese politicians and state media, to encourage an optimistic, pro-government attitude in the country's films and television programs.
Film directors seem to be listening -- and falling in line with the government can be lucrative.
China's highest-grossing movie in 2018 was "Operation Red Sea," which made $5.7 billion at the domestic box office and told the story of a Chinese naval unit's glorious rescue mission off the coast of Africa.
Soft power at home ... but not away
While Chinese films are popular with domestic audiences, so are movies from Hollywood.
For three weeks in January, "Bumblebee" -- part of the Transformers franchise -- topped the country's box office. In February, the American movie "Alita: Battle Angel" was extremely popular, while this month "Captain Marvel" has been a hit with audiences.
The US film industry is successful in China -- likely to become the world's largest cinema market in coming years, according to industry insiders -- even though regulators only allow a limited number of foreign films to be screened each year.
China has not enjoyed the same success in Western markets. Italian film director Gianluigi Perrone says that is because while Hollywood films often also carry a patriotic message, it is done with greater subtlety.
"The 'soft power' in US films has been very subliminal and subtle since the post-WW2 era," says Perrone, who has experienced censorship in China. "The messages in Chinese films have to be so explicit that it's too direct for Western audiences. It overcomes the entertaining part."
Consequently, some independent filmmakers who want to create more nuanced films are bypassing the domestic market.
Chinese-American director Hao Wu's documentary on China's live streaming phenomenon, "People's Republic of Desire," for example, has been aired outside China, picking up several international awards at prestigious events such as SXSW and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. It has yet to be shown in China, due to the government's disapproval of live streaming after a crackdown in late 2017.
But that tactic doesn't always avoid the wrath of the censors.
In February, renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou's film "One Second" was unexpectedly withdrawn from the 69th Berlinale film festival.
According to the film's official Weibo account, it was taken off the program at the last minute due to "technical reasons" -- a term that is often code for government censorship. The movie depicts the Cultural Revolution, a sensitive period in Chinese history.
Popularity no savior
Even huge popularity is no longer enough to save a director or a seemingly anodyne piece of entertainment from the censor's gaze.
The "Story of Yanxi Palace" was watched by more than half a billion Chinese viewers in a single day last August. It has been streamed more than 15 billion times and was the most Googled TV show in 2018.
But in January, a state-run newspaper ran an editorial criticizing its "negative influence on society," noting that characters in the period drama set in the court of the Qianlong Emperor were more popular than communist heroes in state propaganda.
Shortly after the editorial, several local TV stations unexpectedly canceled rebroadcasts of the show.
"(Chinese TV) regulators know that with the January shafting of these shows they are slaughtering one of the few cash cows that could bring China soft power," says Niedenführ, of the University of Tubingen. "But Beijing currently clearly prefers domestic social engineering over increased publicity abroad."
There is no sign that Beijing will ease its censorship anytime soon. When asked about the shock cancellation of the Berlin premiere of "One Second," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying avoided the question.
"I know the hottest movie now is 'The Wandering Earth,'" she said, directing viewers to a film with a more pro-China narrative. "I don't know if you have watched or not. I'd recommend it."
Today, directors who want to create independent or unconventional films in China must either sterilize their work or look elsewhere for a successful audience, says Huang.
It remains to be seen how that will further China's push to increase its soft power abroad.
"I don't think this new genre of 'positive energy' films can be well received outside the country," Huang says.