Adventures in censorship

Media expert Larry Rinaldi

By Published on .

“Resist voluntarily and diligently."

This is the opening statement of guidelines recently issued by China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), which lists 14 general do's and don'ts and over 75 subjects to “resist” voluntarily. Themes to avoid include outbreaks of infectious diseases and ethnic problems, while "do not jest" topics range from Cultural Revolution lingo to revolutionary classics.

Media owners also are ordered to “discourage phenomena" cropping up in China such as nouveau-riche mansions and the pursuit of luxury lifestyles and warned, "Do not dramatize too much." (My personal favorites are "No bureaucratic back stabbing,” “Do not show kept women," and "Do not portray prostitution. Buying or selling.")

Well, this watch list pretty much rules out any realistic portrayal of China's modern society.

The missive ends by warning, “Creators of content should take seriously their social responsibility to educate and lead youth and less-educated groups," which further encourages programmers to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the reason Chinese television is so dreadful, shabby and ultimately non-exportable.

It’s a wonder that any producer or director would try to make good programming at all in China, and partially explains why innumerable variety shows populate the airwaves.

Despite the government's ongoing effort to curb the freedom of programmers, many people in China continue to “push the envelope,” sometimes with success, and always with patience.

Success stories rely on the fact that the system is purposely ambiguous and self-regulating. The number of shows that have “passed,” meaning SARFT censors approved them, over a running three-year period, serves as a rating for production companies. They earn their rank, and “grade A” companies number less than 200 in all of China, out of 3,000 TV production companies nationwide. (Only the "grade A" companies received SARFT's "classified" document.)

Seasoned producers know how to work the system like professional jockeys. They know when to push forward and when to pull back, using a combination of favors, money, argument, relationships, logic and old-fashioned perseverance.

The system operates like a courtroom. There are no precedents and no body of law, but there is literally a judge and jury, and SARFT can enforce its own rulings.

Every show must have a “permit to distribute,” in effect, a license to be broadcast. To get one, the producers submit a final, ready-to-air show to SARFT, which then appoints a judge, who is responsible for issuing a “decision” about whether the show can be broadcast. The judge appoints a jury foreman and six to eight jurors. The foreman and jurors are usually retired members of China's Communist party, who are up-to-date on the vicissitudes and vagaries of the week.

The foreman is like a “briefer” and is critical to the process, giving pointers to jurors and telling them what to watch out for. Some foremen are tougher than others, and producers always want a foreman they know. They literally watch every episode of a show, mind-numbing work.

It's sort of like having your grandparents as the arbiters of what you--and everyone else in your country--can watch on television or at your local cinema.

The foreman and the jury, well, operate just like a normal jury. They discuss what they’ve seen, come to a consensus and issue their findings to the judge, who then issues a ruling, which generally fall into three categories, all with commentary. "Kill it outright, "Don't encourage,” and “Encourage, with revisions." There is a fourth option, "Outright approval," but it's extremely rare.

Production companies are guaranteed a written response within 27 working days and they have an unlimited right of appeal. The appeal process is where the fun begins, although with each appeal, they risk receiving a different or additional set of issues to address.

The process, a complex series of negotiations, has been elevated to a unique Chinese art form, combining diplomacy, gifts, edits, persistence, and benefits tangible and intangible, usually ending in a “settlement” between all parties. It can take anywhere from a few months to more than one year, or even over two years in some cases.

The issues or revisions can be hilarious. Any film or TV show with a foreigner in the cast, for example, must go through an extra vetting process, to a kind of “high court.”One show I know of was refused a permit because it wasn’t clear that the couple in the series were married. (They were, but it wasn’t explicit.)

In one case, a pet mouse named after a famous foreign pianist was considered “mocking” and “disrespectful." Another was refused because it showed a rubble-ridden Beijing landscape, which was considered “unflattering” imagery, even though, as any visitor to China's capital can plainly see, Beijing has become one major construction site.

Producers can also be refused outright at the foreman’s discretion if there are too many typos in their sub-titles. (All dramas must have Chinese subtitles, even to be aired within the country.)

There is as much art in getting a program past China's censorship as there is in making the film. Until the system is transparent, there is little hope that content originating here will ever be world-class, something SARFT has publicly stated as one of its goals.

So it's not surprising that one of the guidelines in the SARFT report is, "Limit the portrayal of filing complaints against the local government or government officials."

Larry Rinaldi is chief operating officer of JoyMedia Group, an independent media company based in Beijing.

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