A set of guidelines that specify what ought not to be shown on television circulated on Chinese social media last week following the abrupt takedown of two popular series, “The Addiction” and “Girl Love“, from online film and television streaming portals.
The document, entitled “General Regulations on Television Content Production”, was distributed last December to the industry by two Chinese Communist Party-affiliated groups, the China Television Drama Production Industry Association and the China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television last December. The idea behind them was to “enact the spirit of Xi Jinping's speech on the National Forum on Literature and Art”, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping's remarks at that symposium in late 2014 calling on artists to serve the people and conform to communist thinking.
But if producers were to follow the guidelines to the letter, TV would become very boring in China. The document bans “abnormal” sexual behavior, crime scenes, police investigation, violence, deviant acts, stories that deviate from historical facts and literary classics, among other things.
Until now, China's entertainment industry has been following the “Regulation on the Management of TV Drama Content“, which was passed in March 2010 and released to the public by China’s State Administration of Press and Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). That document lays out 11 principles on content but does not specify what ought not be shown on TV, leaving space for creativity.
However, the line between party and state in China is a hazy one. Li Jingsheng, chief of the television department within SARFT, recently stressed during a conference that the industry should follow the latest guidelines issued by the two party-affiliated groups and that SARFT will ensure online entertainment meets the same standards as broadcast TV. His comments explain why the two popular online dramas were taken down.
Apart from showing gay and lesbian relationships, the party document forbids a laundry list of content that would make for compelling TV and instead appears to leave room only for happy propaganda.
The immediate reaction among Chinese netizens was to wonder what can exactly be shown on TV according to the guidelines. Below is a translation of the section on what shouldn't appear in a TV series (the original Chinese version was circulated via screenshots):
1. Content that contradicts the Chinese path and social system, that is harmful to the country's image, unity and social stability, that:
- depicts negative images of the country, the state system and policy;
- depicts harmful images of specific professions, groups and social organizations, including the People's Liberation Army, armed police, national security police, security officers, law enforcers;
- exaggerates social problems and over-represents the dark side of society;
- devalues the role of people in history;
- features negative characters or depicts in a positive light anti-revolutionary elements, backwardness, evil, illegal social forces and organizations, and criminals;
- glorifies the military invasion of imperial dynasties in Chinese history;
- advocates colonialism through plot lines, names or images within the series;
- contradicts China's developmental path, or depicts unrealistic and luxurious lifestyles.
2. Content that is harmful to national unity:
- features drama plot lines, names, characters, images, sound effects that are harmful to national feeling;
- shows overt representations that debase or insult cultural practices and beliefs of particular national groups;
- shows stories and historical events that caused harm to national feeling;
- represents military conflicts between different national groups as war between different countries.
3. Content that goes against state religious policy:
- advocates religious extremism and cults;
- makes inappropriate comparisons of different religious beliefs that could create conflict between different religions and schools of thought;
- excessively shows religious dogmas, rules or rituals;
- makes jokes of religious practices.
4. Content that advocates feudal beliefs that go against the scientific spirit:
- promotes feudal beliefs such as spirit possession, reincarnation or witchcraft;
- features feudal culture that promotes ignorance, evil deeds or obscure behaviors.
5. Content that exhibits excessive terror, violence or evil behavior that could induce criminal acts:
- shows violence or homicide, or focuses on the pervasiveness of dark and evil forces;
- depicts in detail criminal cruelty or violent acts, as well as physical and psychological torture;
- exposes processes and details of investigation that could help criminals to circumvent police investigation;
- features obscure criminal cases;
- confuses the value judgement between right and wrong, good and evil, beauty, and blurs the line between just and unjust;
- exhibits deviant acts such as drug abuse, alcoholism or gambling;
- exhibits excessive terror, agony or hysteria that stimulates the sense; shows images, plot lines, music or sound effects that could generate psychological or physical sickness;
- promotes violent revenge or extreme revenge psychology and behavior.
6. Content that exhibits obscenity, vulgarity or banality:
- exhibits evil acts including prostitution, incest and rape;
- exhibits abnormal sexual relations and sexual acts, such as incest, homosexuality, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual violence;
- exhibits and encourages unhealthy marital relations and status, such as extramarital relations, one-night stands or sexual autonomy;
- features images that stimulate the senses or indirect representations or suggestions of sexual behavior;
- features images, plot lines, music or sound effects that are sexually suggestive, harassing or insulting;
- exhibits male or female private parts, or overtly sexy clothing;
- includes vulgar language;
- includes sexually suggestive images, plot lines, music or sound effects that are not suitable for underage viewers.
7. Content that insults or defames others:
- damages important historical characters or the image and reputation of a real person, or causes a negative social impact;
- debase a specific occupation, social status or physical figure.
8. Content that distorts and debases national cultural traditions:
- exaggerates the backward or ignorant aspects of the national;
- attempts to “override” the existing understanding of historical characters or incidents or attempts to “rectify” controversial historical figures or incidents;
- rewrites classic literature or distorts the morality of the original stories;
- contradicts history books or historical fact, deliberately distorts history;
- offers a sensationalized presentation of history, in particular revolution history.
9. Content that is harmful to social morale and has a negative impact on underage viewers:
- exhibits young people's misbehavior such as love affairs, smoking, drinking or street fights;
- includes smoking scenes that violate SARFT regulations;
- features obscure styling of characters that has a negative impact on underage viewers;
- exhibits other uncivilized behaviors that go against social morale.
10. Content that is forbidden by laws and regulations:
- exhibits or reveals the details of specific governmental projects or departmental systems;
- results in international disputes or negative international impact;
- features an abusive or inappropriate use of logos, titles, or jargon of specific authorities;
- shows advertisements in the form of products or the display of service information in violation of SARFT regulations;
- displays environmental destruction or animal abuse;
- violates laws or the spirit of laws and obstructs the development of the country.
As one may imagine, the document has attracted all kinds of curses from Chinese netizens, who say it bans creativity and spells doom for the industry. To calm the outrage, one party mouthpiece clarified that the set of guidelines is meant for the industry's “self-regulation”.
Yet, as the takedown of the two popular online TV series indicated, the party guidelines empower authorities to arbitrarily and selectively censor and ban content that they find challenges their ideology.