It's been far longer than I'd like since I last posted, but life's settling down a bit and I hope to deliver your Chinaful on the regular again soon. My actress sister, knowing my love to stay in-the-know of all things China, recently sent me a Hollywood Reporter article on the Chinese film industry. In a Q&A with Wang Jianlin, chairman of Beijing-based Wanda Group that recently acquired AMC Entertainment for 2.6 billion, the Hollywood Reporter asked some tough questions about China's media practices. In fact, the questions at the end of the article border on the taboo - a Communist Party (CPC) member critiques censorship by the Chinese government.
THR: What do you think is holding back the Chinese film industry? What needs to occur for Chinese filmmakers to compete with Hollywood on the world stage?
Wang: From my observations, there are three things holding back the Chinese industry. The first thing is lack of attention from the government and private enterprise. In recent years, we’ve attached great importance to the country’s economic development through core industries, while mostly ignoring culture and entertainment. The second reason has to do with the investors themselves. Before, our major investors in entertainment were just small and medium-size enterprises. There were no deep-pocketed investors like Wanda active in the industry. So that constrained the size of investment and the level of quality Chinese film production and entertainment could achieve. The last factor is our comparatively strict censorship system for film production and publication. These are the biggest factors that have been holding us back. But I think we’ve begun to acknowledge these issues and are now proposing solutions. Right now, as I mentioned, the Chinese government has attached great importance and has held many meetings and produced influential papers supporting the development of culture and entertainment. We need to attract more of China’s biggest enterprises to join this industry and make big investments, such as Wanda is doing. Thirdly, I think we should lose the censorship and approval system of film production and publication.
THR: Lose the censorship? Do you think that there’s a good chance that will actually happen?
Wang: It’s absolutely possible. There’s a chance.
THR: In your view, how has the censorship and approval process in China been hindering the industry?
Wang: A censorship system in general is not a problem. Many countries have a censorship system of some kind; the U.S. has its rating system. The problem with our system is that there is only one authority -- the film bureau [the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television] -- with a small number of people who are in charge of the approval of all films, which takes a long time. And some of these people will shoulder different ideas, so the directors will have to correct or make changes to their artistic vision, based on the opinion of a small number of so-called experts. This has severely held back the development of our film industry. I’ve proposed that we have to decentralize the censorship process and assign it to local, provincial governments. If we let different provincial governments handle the approval of various films, we can learn what works from the various instances and films. If that can be achieved, I believe the film industry of China can prosper.
For a member of the CPC to speak critically of government censorship, particularly in Western media, to my knowledge is unprecedented. But note that Wang does not abandon the policy of party control entirely - rather, he recommend decentralized censorship at the provincial level. Such a proposal may be due to the varying demographics of the provinces. Ethnic, economic and cultural differences between the provinces would be reason to leave censorship to the local governments, but why is censorship needed at all? This is the true heart of the matter, yet Wang doesn't address that premise. Looks like he's still towing the party line, after all.
In the past, China has only allowed 20 foreign movies per year to enter the Chinese market. Hard to believe, but it's true. And the movies that get into China are generally the big box office, action-heavy films without a plot. I saw 2012 in Beijing when I lived there - enough said. The chance to have a film shown to a population of over 1 billion is enough to make any director, producer or movie studio self-censor. Even if China reforms its practice of direct censorship, I'd bet the Government's preferences will continue to be obeyed by eager US filmakers for years to come.