Could a ratings system improve the Chinese film and television industry?

A publicity photo handout for the TV drama Empress of China, which was censored to crop out any regions below women’s necks with exposed cleavage.

ChinaFile:

It all started with plunging necklines. After the sudden withdrawal and subsequent sanitizing of a popular Chinese show, viewers in China have renewed longstanding calls to strip government censors of their power, using one simple solution: a ratings system for television and film. Shortly after its December 21 premier, the series Empress of China rose to swift popularity on the shoulders of beautiful women in expensive period costumes featuring abundant décolletage. But the series was yanked from airwaves shortly after its debut, only to return on January 1 with a glaring lack of cleavage; censors had replaced the more revealing scenes with close-ups cropping out any region below women’s necks. The outcry and downright mockery that resulted says much about why Chinese entertainment continues to fall short of its massive potential.

Soon after Empress‘s inglorious return to the small screen, Chinese social media demanded the original’s return. They argued that low-cut garments were true to the history of that period. They complained the revised show comprised so many head-shots that it might as well be called “The Legend of Empress Big Head.” They posted satirical images of other movies, photographs, and works of art similarly cropped to ridiculous effect, including the Mona Lisa, the statue Venus de Milo, and the former Communist strongman Mao Zedong. Media outlet Sina Entertainment reported on January 5 that viewership has slipped since its post-censorship return to the airwaves, jeopardizing the big-budget show’s profitability.

 

Chinese authorities issued no statement explaining their rationale, but they likely believed Empress to be too salacious for younger viewers. If that were the case, it would have sufficed to rate the series for mature audiences—except China has no such system. A widely read January 3 blog post on Hong Kong-based Phoenix Media explained official refusal to implement a ratings system this way:

Officials believe that “if people are exposed to elegant things, they will become elegant; if they are unable to view vulgar things, they will be cut off from vulgarity.” By contrast, “With a ratings system, there will be both elegant and vulgar things, and ignorant people cannot help but choose what is vulgar.”

The author of the post rejected that logic, positing that a “cultural products rating system” was the only way to resolve the contradiction between “creative freedom” and limits to what some might be able to see.

On January 5, even state news agency Xinhua chimed in. The incident demonstrated that “China’s television and film management process is insufficient,” the Xinhua article asserted, adding that “experts” recommended the immediate adoption of a ratings system in order to “give television market management a ‘law’ to rely upon”—an invocation of the Communist Party’s recent rhetorical emphasis on rule by law. Some were less circumspect. “This whole thing is one big joke,” commented one user of Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging platform. “The fundamental cause is that our country doesn’t have a television ratings system.”

China’s government has thus far been unwavering. The Xinhua article was later removed, though it can still be viewed on other websites. The adoption of film and television ratings has long been a hot topic in China, so much so that in August 2010, the powerful State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) felt compelled to reject the proposals. And though Chinese netizens have continued to push for a ratings system, no system has yet been adopted. The official argument against a film and television rating system—that it is not “suited” to China because it can not guarantee youth would not be exposed to inappropriate materials—has irked people for years. A popular June 2011 post on discussion forum Zhihu criticized the government’s desire to control even the possibility of young people’s exposure to sexually explicit material. “The Chinese film market is the fastest growing in the world,” the author wrote. “Whether or not to adopt a rating system shouldn’t even be a point of discussion.” Without ratings, and the resulting market segmentation that in turn drives investment and creates a strong business environment, “Chinese movies cannot experience a true artistic and business boom.”

For now, works produced in the West, not to mention the relatively tiny South Korea, continue to outshine Chinese efforts. “Works that are appropriate for everyone are rarely good,” declared Bi Xiaozhe, a prolific editorialist, in a January 5 op-ed syndicated in government mouthpiece People’s Daily. Bi acknowledged that the re-launchedEmpress of China was “now ‘appropriate for all audiences,’” but said “it has also lost its edge.” If classical Western art had to “avoid sex as well as the female body,” Bi asked, “would they still have become classics that have kept their appeal for hundreds or even thousands of years?” To leave a space for the creation of high-quality works—while also satisfying worried parents—China should “emulate the ratings model of Western countries.”

A popular January 6 essay on Weibo titled “Why do Korean Movies Completely Blow Chinese Movies Out of the Water?” partly attributed the success of Korean movies and dramas—hugely popular in China and throughout Asia—to South Korea’s own film and television ratings system. Allowing creators to work “completely without interference,” the author wrote, encourages private investment and drives competition. (For curious readers, a January 4 Sina article estimated what rating the uncut Empress of China might receive elsewhere: TV-PG or perhaps TV-14 in the United States; “15” in South Korea, and an outright ban from Saudi Arabian television.)

However sensible a Chinese ratings system may seem, censors wield the power to pick winners and losers in a massive market, and they are unlikely to part with that authority easily. Until that time, grassroots Chinese will continue to chortle at what they see as SAPPRFT’s prudishness, and imagine a Chinese film and television renaissance that still feels too far away.

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Crowds gather in Hong Kong for anniversary of Tiananmen Crackdown

 

New York Times:

Tens of thousands gathered at a central park in Hong Kong on Wednesday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, even as a stifling security presence in Beijing and elsewhere in mainland China appeared to forestall protests.

The organizers of the vigil in Hong Kong said the crowd on Wednesday numbered over 180,000, while the police estimated that 99,500 people had attended. The turnout on Wednesday was the largest since 1989, according to the organizers, and the second-largest, according to police estimates, trailing the 2010 turnout, which was 113,000.

State-controlled Chinese news organizations largely ignored the anniversary, even as the foreign news media gave it global attention. In Washington, the White House said in a statement, “Twenty-five years later, the United States continues to honor the memories of those who gave their lives in and around Tiananmen Square and throughout China, and we call on Chinese authorities to account for those killed, detained or missing in connection with the events surrounding June 4, 1989.

In the years since the crackdown, mainland China has combined rapid economic growth with severe and recently increasing restrictions on civil liberties. In the weeks preceding the anniversary, the Chinese police detained and in some cases prosecuted scores of human rights activists.

Online censors have stepped up their already extensive blocking or deleting of websites and postings that challenge the Communist Party’s effort to erase the public’s memory of the bloodshed in 1989, when soldiers in Beijing killed hundreds of students, workers and professionals demonstrating for greater democracy and limits on corruption.

The crowd that gathered Wednesday night in Victoria Park in Hong Kong was visibly younger than in previous years and included, for the first time, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a widely admired Roman Catholic priest who in the past had held prayers near the commemoration but had not taken part.

In recent years, the gathering had been dominated by people age 40 or older who remembered coverage of the night of the crackdown and who sometimes brought their children. That demographic profile appeared to have been upended this year, as people in their 20s and 30s predominated. An announcer on the stage asked all those attending the vigil for the first time to raise their hands, and many sprang up.

One first-time attendee, Rex Liu, a 27-year-old office worker, said that although he felt regret that students had died 25 years ago, he was motivated more by concern about the prevalence of corruption in current-day China. “I feel the need to come this year to express my discontent over the rotting and corrupt state of the Chinese government,” he said.

The general silence about the anniversary that security agencies imposed in mainland China left Hong Kong as the only city on Chinese soil where such a public commemoration could take place.

 Thousands in Hong Kong gathered on Wednesday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

 

Asked during a brief interview near the end of the vigil whether he was attending the event as a church leader, Cardinal Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong and a longtime advocate of greater democracy, gave a small shrug and a short, amused laugh. “No, no, no, I am myself,” he said.

Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, published an article on Wednesday quoting a government spokesman criticizing the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, who called on Tuesday for Beijing to release pro-democracy activists and others who have been detained.

“The so-called press release made by U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, grossly goes against her mandate and constitutes a grave intervention of China’s judicial sovereignty and internal affairs,” Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said at a daily news briefing, according to the Xinhua report. Ms. Pillay had released a statement on the anniversary calling on China to free dissidents. “China has chosen a viable path to develop human rights, and this is not to be changed by any discordant voice,” Mr. Hong added.

Beijing kept the historic site tightly guarded on Wednesday. 

Among those who had assembled around Victoria Park was one man defending the armed crackdown. He held a sign in Chinese that read: “Oppose overturning the verdict on June 4; the democracy movement is a menace to national tranquillity. Without a prompt crackdown, China would not be what it is today.”

The man, Chiu Keng Wong, a Hong Kong resident and camera dealer, said he was in China in 1989.

People don’t understand the situation back then,” he said. “This had to be done to defend reform and opening up. Older people who have spent time in China understand my view.”

A T-shirt and a headband displayed to symbolize the hunger strike of pro-democracy activists in the spring of 1989, ahead of a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Several groups in Hong Kong allied with the Beijing government have tried to make the case that dwelling on June 4 is politically unhealthy, and one of them, the Voice of Loving Hong Kong, held a small gathering near Victoria Park. Guarded by a phalanx of police officers and metal barriers, the group had a banner urging the people of Hong Kong to “let go of this burden.”

The democracy movement in Hong Kong has fractured over how to deal with Beijing’s steadfast refusal to change its official stance on the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and over Beijing’s reluctance to allow greater democracy in Hong Kong itself. The clearest sign of that division was a separate protest Wednesday evening on the opposite side of the harbor from the Victoria Park candlelight vigil, which has been held every year since 1989.

The rival event, which the police said attracted 3,060 people, was organized by the Proletariat Political Institute, a group led by Wong Yuk-man, a democracy activist who is also on the 70-member Legislative Council. He contends that the established pro-democracy parties are not sufficiently assertive in challenging Beijing.

The vigil has been held for more than two decades, and the significance of the vigil is diminishing,” Mr. Wong’s group said in a statement Tuesday evening. “It is now no more than a routine ceremonial event.”

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 Crowds gather in Hong Kong for anniversary of Tiananmen Crackdown