Deviant or improper behavior is not welcome in China. The individual must subordinate to the common good — as determined by the Communist Party. "It sees itself as a kind of civilizing regime and claims to give people a moral education," says Björn Alpermann, Sinologist and chair of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Würzburg.
Love the party, serve socialism
On March 1, a catalog of 15 special rules of conduct were introduced for China's performing artists designed to — according to the official statement — increase the quality of the performances, shine a positive light on them and advance the development of the industry.
The rules affect an entire industry, from actors and singers to magicians, comedians and even acrobats. The most important ones include "love for the party and its principles" and serving "the people and socialism."
The government announcement did not come as a surprise to Alpermann, who says the regulations issued by the government-backed China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) come at a time of hardline social policies under Xi Jinping. "Entrepreneurs, academics and other professional groups the party sees as potentially dangerous have also been the target of such campaigns in recent years and months," he says. In the case of artists, he adds, there have been a number of scandals recently. "The party sees them as having a special duty to be moral role models because they have such large fan bases."
Public penance is mandatory
In the eyes of the party, one of the country's most popular actresses recently failed miserably as a role model.
Prada brand ambassador Zheng Shuang was deemed to have turned the "Chinese people" against her through a scandal involving a surrogate mother and two babies born in the US she decided she didn't want after all. She lost all her contracts.
Fan Bingbing used to be China's highest-paid actress. Known to Western audiences from films including X-Men: Days of Future Past and Iron Man 3, she became a persona non grata in China in 2018 for reportedly evading the equivalent of €111 million ($134 million) in taxes.
In 2013, star director Zhang Yimou paid a €900,000 fine for violating the one-child policy and having three children instead, Alpermann says.
All three have apologized to the Chinese public for their misconduct, because "public repentance and contrite confessions on television are always part of the deal in China," Alpermann told DW. They hope to be accepted back into the country's good graces, which doesn't always work. "It depends on how important a certain person is for the regime. The party is opportunistic and has an eye on what the people say." Zhang Yimou was allowed back in the fold of creative artists, but dispensable artists are dropped completely.
Social control is part of everyday life
The new guidelines make it very clear once again what the party expects from its artists. It goes without saying that anyone who consumes drugs or drives drunk is on the index, but those who "mislead consumers by appearing in commercials" or engage in "religious practices" are also punished. Violent film scenes that show injured bodies are also forbidden on the big screen.
An ethics committee of "exemplary artists" supervises the new guidelines. Violations can lead to an industry ban of up to five years; in the case of particularly serious cases of misconduct, they could even be banned for life. Three months before the end of their enforced time-out, the artists can apply for reintegration — volunteering for the good of the national community and "professional" retraining are aimed at bringing the delinquents back on track.
"There is nothing new or shocking about the most recent campaign to encourage Chinese performing artists to follow the behavioral dictates of the Communist Party," says Robert Daly, director of the Washington-based Kissinger Institute on China and the US. He worked for the embassy in Beijing for a long time, and in 1993 he starred in a Chinese television series. Artists have been the focus of the party since Mao's time, he told DW. "Xi Jinping made clear that, like Mao, he would require the arts to serve socialism," he argues.
Soft power strategies
The fact that the movie industry is under particular scrutiny is due to its role as a central building block in the Chinese "Ruan Shili" campaign, the "soft power strategy" — China's claim to cement its position in the world on the basis of its foreign policy and its culture.
And at present, the People's Republic is brimming with economic power. China is also becoming more powerful in the movie business: In 2020, Chinese box office sales were for the first time higher than those in North America. Even if that is still for the most part due to the pandemic. The Mandarin-language historical epic about the Sino-Japanese war, The Eight Hundred, earned the equivalent of €370 million in China from September 2020 until now, despite coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions.
"Investing in the film industry is clearly part of the Chinese propaganda department's toolkit," says Alpermann. As recently as 2018, entrepreneur Wang Jianlin built the world's most modern studio complex with 40 film studios for about €6.5 billion. Two years earlier, he bought Legendary Entertainment for €3.2 billion, the California film studio where, among other things, the blockbusters Jurassic World and the Batman trilogy were produced. China's Alibaba corporation cooperates with Steven Spielberg's firm, Amblin Partners. Western know-how is in demand in China, but Hollywood, too has long been eyeing China with its population of about 1.44 billion — a more than worthwhile market for US studios.
Hollywood's reverence to Chinese censorship
There is a catch to what looks like a lucrative business, however. Only 34 foreign productions are allowed to be shown in Chinese cinemas each year, and they first have to pass censorship, which means they can't "offend China's national dignity, honor and interests."
"1997 was the last year in which major American studios made films seen by Beijing as 'anti-China,'" Daly says, pointing out Martin Scorsese's Kundun and Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet. Both works criticized China's brutal invasion of the Himalayan country. "China punished Hollywood for those productions. Ever since, major American studios have been hesitant to green light any film that China's censors might object to."
China already plays a decisive role in determining which films are even made in Hollywood. So it's no wonder that China ends up saving the world in The Martian, that the insubordinate Taiwan patch on Tom Cruise's leather jacket in Mission Impossible had to be removed, and that the James Bond movie Skyfall was reedited, with some scenes removed for the Chinese market.
In 2017, the most expensive Chinese-American co-production to date was launched, The Great Wall. Hollywood pros wrote the script, star director Zhang Yimou shot the drama film. Though most actors are Chinese, Hollywood stars Matt Damon and William Dafoe were also signed.
'Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing'
PEN America criticizes such co-productions in its 2020 report entitled "Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing." US studios, PEN says, have even in some instances directly invited Chinese government censors onto their film sets "to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censors' wires" — concerning content, casting, plot, dialogue and settings.
The US Congress is deeply concerned about these issues and is trying to enact legislation to address them, says Robert Daly. "American films are made by independent commercial studios that chase profits, including profits in China," he says, adding that the US federal government does not and must not regulate culture.
However, he adds, members of Congress have criticized the Disney company for working closely with authorities in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang — the region where the United Nations says a million Uighurs are imprisoned — on the film Mulan.
"Disney ignored these attacks because it had nothing to say in its own defense," he told DW. "It paid a commercial price for making a bad movie, but it did not pay a political price for being servile to Beijing."
Who is going to be the No. 1 in the film business?
The elation over a lucrative collaboration has died down because films Hollywood made specifically with Chinese motifs, actors and even advertising for Chinese products have not been as lucrative as expected — perhaps because Western producers don't necessarily know how to tell a good Chinese story.
Chinese productions are just as likely to have a hard time being accepted in the West.
An Asian film like Parasite by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho tells a great story, so it succeeds everywhere, Daly says, adding that China, too, has world-class directors and actors. But "under the Communist Party, 'cultural production' is propaganda, not art. The result is lousy movies."
Measured by box office dollars, the future No. 1 in the industry might very well be China. "It has the numbers, the wealth, and the will," argues Daly. "But measured by work that shapes human minds and civilizations, it will be artists in free societies that prevail."
Adapted from German by Dagmar Breitenbach