Chinese Stars Promise to Behave, Or Else

Actress Fan Bingbing emphasizes winning the respect and praise of the masses over prizes and awards. Rian Dundon

Actress Fan Bingbing emphasizes winning the respect and praise of the masses over prizes and awards. Rian Dundon

The latest twist in Xi Jinping’s vision of wholesome Chinese culture involves Chinese celebrities pledging their adherence to morally upstanding conduct.

It would be difficult to imagine a similar scene in Hollywood, with, say, Jennifer Lawrence and Warner Brothers CEO Kenji Tsujihara proclaiming their intention to behave according to government directives. Yet that is exactly what is going on in China, where celebrities and media industry professionals are vowing to uphold standards of professional ethics, and agreeing to accept punishment for violations.

In mid-September, Chinese authorities introduced the “Pledge on Professional Ethics Self-Discipline for Personnel in Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television,” which was signed by 50 organizations, primarily staid official organizations involved in the various media sectors, including the China Producers’ Association and the China Directors’ Association.

The goals of the pledge include strengthening “core socialist values” along with professional ethics and adherence to the law. In a typically official didactic Chinese style, the document emphasizes ten “dos and don’ts” The first Do: Uphold the Communist party’s leadership and protect national interests. The first Don’t: “do not publish or disseminate any views that would harm the party or nation’s image.” Of particular relevance to the film industry, the pledge includes prohibitions on vulgar language and images, poor quality work, disparaging the reputation and work of others, involvement in pornography, gambling, drugs, and other unspecified behavior that would offend public morality. The pact requires member organizations to include its terms in employment and cooperation contracts with other organizations. Violations of the agreement will result in sanctions that can include blacklisting from the industry.

In an event that may serve as a Chinese counterpoint to the recent transpacific industry gatherings last week in Los Angeles, back in Beijing the Chinese Alliance for Radio, Film, and Television (CARFT) organized a symposium on November 5th to promote the self-discipline initiative beyond the fairly narrow confines of traditional government organizations. The event drew a number of prominent movie industry representatives, including China Film Co. chief executive Jiang Ping, highlighting the central role of film in China’s push for morally upright and patriotic culture.

Judging from the headlines in official media, domestic superstar actress Fan Bingbing was the headline act, representing the younger generation of film stars. Fan, who has topped the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list of highest-earning stars for the past three years, gave a speech that opened and closed with praise for the new directives, in which she exhorted her acting colleagues to “consciously put an end to fakery, evil, and vulgarity, resolutely promote truth, good, and beauty, and devote themselves fully to promoting industry norms and harmonious development.”

Fan emphasized that “to be a good actor, one must first be a good person,” which she defined as being a law-abiding citizen, and she referred to her education under the director Xie Jin, an old-school third-generation filmmaker best known for his pre-reform era classic Two Stage Sisters, who she said taught her to prioritize the respect and praise of the masses over winning prizes and awards.

Others used language that appeared to be lifted directly from Xi Jinping’s speech on arts and culture. Screenwriter Gao Mantang, one of China’s most financially successful TV screenwriters, derided the “mechanized production, fast-food consumption” and deviation from core socialist values in the film and TV industry.

Li Yongjian, representing the actors’ committee, also borrowed from Xi’s speech when he complained of recent trends in the movie and TV industry, ranging from poor quality productions to the lack of respect for history and an over-emphasis on economic benefits over social benefits. Using Xi’s terminology, Li called on the industry to guide the people towards “correct views on history, the nation, its people and culture, while promoting spiritual culture, ideology and morality.” Only then, he said, would China be able to turn into a real global cultural power in film and television.

While a lot of this sounds like flowery rhetoric, CARFT head Zhang Haitao warned that the launch of the self-discipline pledge was no superficial display, and stressed that it is meant to be implemented in practice. To that effect, Zhang announced that, at the request of China’s central propaganda authorities, CARFT would establish a new committee on professional ethics that would be authorized to handle violations of the self-discipline pledge, supplementing the existing authority of individual industry associations to punish their members. Reports of violations of the pledge, perhaps including blacklists, will be published on CARFT’s website.

Of course, establishing a committee empowered to compile blacklists might not be the best way to strengthen one’s cultural industries, as the American example from the years following World War II illustrated amply.