Jan 26, 2015 06:04 PM

Why Controversy Plays Starring Role in China's TV, Film Censorship

When the Empress of China, a TV drama set in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), aired in prime time on Hunan TV on December 21, it became an instant hit.

The show – apparently the most expensive TV program ever made in China, with a budget of 300 million yuan – centers on scheming by the concubines of the emperor Li Shimin and on power struggles involving several princes.

The popular show featuring top actress Fan Bingbing was abruptly taken off the air after a week due to what Hunan TV called "a technical problem."

When the program returned in the beginning of January as promised, viewers were both amused and dismayed by how much the show had been changed. Scenes of women in elegant dresses displaying their cleavage were replaced with close-ups of beautiful faces in heavy make-up. Gone were steamy scenes showing scantily clad concubines bathing and an aging emperor fooling around with young women.

Media reports said the suspension was not due to a technical glitch, but rather an order from the country's top media censor, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, that the show be sent back to the editing room. The censor never said if it was acting on orders from high-ups or complaints from conservative quarters.

The news reports triggered renewed anger at the much-loathed administration over its heavy handed censorship of films and TV shows. It has also shed new light on the murky censorship regime in China.

Rules for TV show productions and marketing that the administration released in 2004 and 2010 say producers must have a TV script reviewed by censors before they can go ahead with filming, and the finished show must be sent to censors for clearance before it can air.

The administration introduced a four-tier censorship mechanism for TV shows in 2007 that requires networks to seek clearance for their productions not only from censors at the regional and central levels of government, but also approval from Communist Party publicity officials at those levels.

Many critics say they are particularly frustrated by the suspension of a show that had already been cleared. However, censors indeed acted in accordance with regulations when they had Empress of China taken off the air for a new review because the 2010 rules allow them to order a show suspended or re-edited for the sake of public interests.

The show was controversial before it was suspended because detractors accused its producers of distorting history in order to attract viewers. The Tang Dynasty, they argued, was not known for low-cut dresses and displays of cleavage.

The underlying issue is that the media administration never clearly said what went wrong with its initial clearance and on what grounds it ordered the review.

The public controversy over Empress of China highlights a growing dilemma facing censors in a county that has rejected the idea of a rating system for films and TV shows.

In some Western countries, censorship in the form of a rating system is much more transparent and detailed. For example, a British film or TV production labeled for general viewing cannot show a woman's breasts, human sex organs or pubic hair. In the United States, films are rated with a five-tier system to balance creativity and the protection of minors.

In contrast, provisions for film and TV content in China are prone to controversy and hard to enforce because they are too vague and too general. The saga surrounding the censorship of this show has once again underscored the dire need for a film and TV rating system in the country and a legal framework to safeguard it.

What's more, industry regulations should be amended to give production companies and TV networks more say in censorship decisions and they should be allowed to appeal against censorship rules via industry associations so the system has checks and balances.

Zhang Yuhan is a postgraduate student at Wuhan University's School of Law

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