China’s Censors Briefly Lift Veil on Film Review Process

China’s state broadcaster takes a rare look inside the film censorship process.

Chinese television viewers caught a rare glimpse into the operations of their country’s notoriously opaque film censorship process over the weekend after the media watchdog opened its doors to state media for a guided tour.

The less than 10-minute piece broadcast on the “Walk Down Chang’an Avenue” program on CCTV-13 on Saturday night featured China Film Bureau chief Zhang Hongsen in a walk-and-talk interview with CCTV reporter Gu Bing.

Like many of China’s government offices, the much-feared and powerful media industry regulator and censor, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (SAPPRFT), sits along the wide, imperious main avenue in the country’s capital.

As the report shows, the offices themselves are somewhat drab — their stripped-back spartan appearance in keeping with the aesthetic of president Xi Jinping’s austerity campaign against extravagance and waste.

Yet despite their humble appearance, the offices are the central point at which crucial decisions over the appropriateness of content in film and other media are nutted out by officials, filmmakers, and studio executives from Hollywood who have made their pilgrimage to China’s cultural and political capital.

“I can count a number of people who’ve been here, including top executives from the 6 top studios in Hollywood,” Zhang tells his interlocutor as he ushers them into a fairly nondescript meeting room. “We’ve received Michael Bay, Alfonso Cuarón Orozco, Nikita Mikhalkov, and many Chinese directors here.”

As Zhang puts it, the offices represent “the final door that every Chinese and imported foreign movie has to pass through before they’re able to reach Chinese audiences and the Chinese market.”

While the short program was hardly a hard-hitting expose of the secretive organization and its processes, Zhang did offer some morsels on how the censorship sausage is made.

No fewer than 10 people must be involved in any review of a movie, Zhang says for instance. If there are any minor disagreements about an element of a film, a two-thirds vote is needed. For anything more serious, the officials have to discuss it and then re-watch the film before coming to a unanimous decision.

The entire review process for one film should not exceed one month, Zhang says.

No single official should let their own subjective standards cloud their judgment Zhang stresses, but rather, they should be guided by the law – for which he points to the new Chinese film law released last month as containing the relevant clauses which, he says, are “extremely clear.”

But when pressed for more details about what criteria is used for deciding what ends up on the cutting room floor, Zhang retreats into turgid party-speak and bureaucratese — saying, in essence, that above all, the censors will brook no compromise when it comes to the cardinal principles of government ideology.

Fortunately, Zhang cheerfully insists that very few films that go through the process have serious political problems. Instead, what the censors have to deal with are considered “unprofessional, gratuitous, or vulgar elements,” down to very specific shots and flaws.

“The film review process is not just about interception and blocking [projects] nor is it just a control and management,” Zhang says. “It’s a way for artists and officials to discuss art and the progress of art together, it’s a great platform for improving artistic quality and artistic level.”

At the end of the report, the two men visit a local Beijing cinema. The first thing Zhang looks out for at local cinemas is, he says, is if the ratio of foreign to domestic films is correct.

Zhang also takes the opportunity to pour cold water on speculation that new parental warnings at cinemas represented a move towards a rating system for the country.

“It’s not meant that way,” Zhang said. “It’s just a viewing guide suggestion, there’s nothing else to it than that, nothing broader than that,” he said adding that the media had misinterpreted it.