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Veteran Director Raises Curtain on China's Arbitrary Film Censorship Policy

The screening of the previously banned film V for Vendetta, on the state broadcaster China Central Television has stirred up hope for censorship reform in China.

On December 15, 2012, 70-year-old film director Xie Fei, a heavyweight in China's film industry and professor at the Beijing Film Academy, published an open letter [zh] on his micro-blog, advocating for replacement of China's film censorship with a rating system.

Outrageous film censorship practices

Fei worries China's development of cultural and creative industries will meet a dead end if the censorship system remains arbitrary and secretive. Similar reform proposal was raised in 2004 but was rejected by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) in 2010.

Cartoon on SARFT's role published in, a Chinese government portal site. Public domain.

Fei's letter, addressed to the SARFT, points out that the current censorship system is against China's constitution which protects citizens’ freedom of expression and freedom of press. He also discloses [zh] many outrageous censorship practices:


Past example is: On 12 March 1994, SARFT issued a notice “Do not support Zhang Yuan and others in filming and post-production” to punish Zhang Yuan, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Wang Xiaoshuai, Wu Wenguang, and four other directors; they were banned from making films for 7 years because their productions – “Beijing Bastards“, “The Blue Kite“, “The Days” – were listed in overseas film festivals without going through domestic censorship. Because of this Tien Zhuangzhaung did not produce any movie for 7 years, others were forced to produce “underground movies” such as “East Palace, West Palace“. For many years, directors such as Jiang Wen, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke have also been deprived of their rights in creative works and banned from making movies because of administrative punishment. I questioned the authorities: “Aren't such decisions against the nation's constitution? While novels, artworks, music and theatre performance is released outside the country without censorship, such practice has become illegal in the film sector?” The official replied: “We regard all movies to represent the state.” Such perspectives are unreasonable and ridiculous in today's time.

Quoting a more recent censorship case Xie writes [zh]:


A SARFT official told me: “Homosexuality cannot be shown in a movie – a leader's instruction.” In the movie, the main female character falls in love with a male dancer who has homosexual tendencies but the film handles the subject delicately. Homosexuality is a social phenomena, the law and the public should acknowledge its existence. The movie does not make any judgement on the practice, why should it be banned? Is a leader's instruction, personal opinion or law? In the past few years, there are so many unwritten laws when censoring movies, such as “ghosts are not allowed in contemporary settings”, “extramarital affairs are not allowed”, “certain political incidents are not allowed” etc. The censorship system is not based according to [defined] “law” but according to [arbitrary] “individuals”.

Film censorship kills artistic exploration

Xie proposes replacing the current censorship system with a ratings system:



The current administrative censorship on film is counterproductive to the development of our society, economy and culture. It wastes administrative resources, restricts the development of the cultural and entertainment market and kills artistic exploration.

Last year, SARFT claimed that it has reviewed 791 movies, but eventually less than 200 movies managed to make their way to the cinemas. Blockbusters were a lot less. How many administrative resources have been wasted? In reality, we have a large number of “underground movies” which haven't gone through the censorship system being circulated via satellite TV, DVC, and film festivals. In addition, internet movies, micro-movies produced by non-professionals are prospering online, can SARFT review all these?

So far more than 35,373 micro-bloggers have retweeted Xie's letter and there are more than 5,627 comments under the discussion thread. There are quite a few pro-censorship nationalistic comments, but they are likely coming from the so-called 50 cent party as they flooded in after the letter was quoted by overseas Chinese media outlets.

The pro-censorship nationalistic argument


潇洒静静7:Ask the director, are you that attracted to violent and pornographic content? It is immoral to replace the majority's aesthetic tendency with the minority's taste. To distribute topics of your liking in a public platform will touch upon issues related with law, education, morality and ethics and should not be decided by a small circle of movie producers.


自由的爱在春夏秋冬:What is the meaning of self-awareness of the culture? Chinese directors (not only director Xie) should develop a clear notion of culture and the following issues before they produce movies, or else they will be wasting social resources: whether they should be responsible to history or be ego-centered? Whether they should appeal to an audience of western judges? Export our culture or kneel down to alien culture? Propagate patriotic heroism or earn money with violent and pornographic culture? Should they be critical towards reality and human greed or tear apart national unity? Represent history accurately or tread on history?

旅美丸子: 费导谢导去好莱坞拍吧,可以专拍中国和中国人变态,中国人是怎么被西方暴力色情牵着鼻子走的,美国人喜欢看。 中国人还是要看点积极向上的。在西方亚文化非主流色情暴力意识形态里打转,不会有有好作品。

旅美丸子: Director Xie should make a film in Hollywood. Then he can produce a sick China and some sick Chinese characters. The Americans like to watch how the Chinese are being led by western violence and pornography. Chinese should strike for better. They can't produce a good movie in western violent and pornographic sub-culture.


芥末丝儿-戎:Movie fans and directors are low in quality in China. Once the restriction is lifted, Chinese movies will be Hong Kong-ized and turn vulgar and banal. Chinese culture will be ruined.

Anti-censorship opinions

Fortunately, the majority of opinions support Xie's proposal:


红叶紫花:Too much control by the government, too little control over the government.


痒痒-挠儿: Support ratings system. However, censorship has nothing to do with ratings. It is serving a political need. The film sector has been struggling with censorship for many years without any improvement. It is frustrating to work in such a political system.


四不清:Intellectuals in mainland China only have two choices. One is to surrender and become a tamed pet, pretending to be cute and begging for a living. One is to reject and be locked in a cage, living in fear but free.


狂奔的阿立:After the financial crisis in 1997, South Korea abolished its movie censorship system. Within 10 years, Korean cultural production has gained global recognition. I am not building my argument by glorifying other examples. But Korean movies are far ahead of China and all movie producers recognize this fact. If censorship of content prevails in China, the revival of Chinese culture will just be empty talk.


匹夫有责之道:Support! Free our dream and free our thought. Only freedom can enhance our culture. Hope for the best that the “New Policy” and “Fresh Wind” will reach the cultural sector and give the artists more space for imagination and creative work.

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