China’s Media Business Feels the Party’s Iron Fist

Even as Wanda Studios opens the Qingdao Movie Metropolis, artists face challenges from new government rules

wanda Movie Metropolis Qingdao
WU HONG/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

At the low-key opening ceremony April 28 of Wanda Studios in Qingdao, Li Guoqi, deputy director of State Administration of Film, made a little speech that had a big message. He told the crowd sitting before him, including China’s top filmmakers such as Feng Xiaogang, Huang Bo and Wu Jing — as well as those travelling from Hollywood — that cinema in the middle kingdom was more than just a bourgeoning, lucrative industry.

Cinema in China, Li said, served the important function of publicizing the ideology of the Communist party and must demonstrate the determination to implement and develop Chinese socialism.

“We must follow the direction of [president] Xi Jinping … to realize the great Chinese dream,” Li stressed in his speech to the assembled movie industry executives and the media.

Wanda Studios, or Qingdao Movie Metropolis, pictured above, is a 50 billion yuan ($7.9 billion) 166-hectare (410 acre) site that is home to 30 soundstages completed in the first phase plus post-production studios and a project incubation center as well as lifestyle and entertainment facilities. It opened just a month after March’s announcement that the regulation of the movie and TV industry would move from the State Administration for Film Radio Press Publishing and Television to directly under the Communist Party’s propaganda department, but appearing in public as the Film Bureau.

The event was almost too modest for such a mega-studio complex — no red carpet or Hollywood glamour, as the Wanda group continues to fall under tight government scrutiny after its costly, high-profile foreign acquisitions such as AMC Theatres and Legendary Entertainment.

“The message is clear: under Xi’s leadership, the party must control everything,” says Bruce Lui, China watcher and journalism lecturer at the Hong Kong Baptist University. “This is a step backward as Xi continues to consolidate his power.”

According to the official announcement, the goal of the move was to maximize the functions of films in promoting the party’s ideology while enriching people’s cultural and entertainment lives. The party’s propaganda department will manage the administration of films, directing and monitoring their production and distribution, as well as censorship.

In addition, press and publishing previously under the State Administration were also moved under the propaganda department “to strengthen the party’s unified leadership of news media and public opinion, as well as management of publishing activities.”

Since Xi became the president of China in 2012, the government has been taking an active approach to tightening the country’s freedom of expression to ensure that no one can challenge its authority. The president, now expected to serve a life term after changes made in the constitution this year, has never been shy about his position.

In 2015, at a meeting with prominent artists in Beijing, Xi gave them direction of the role that art and culture should play, which was to serve a social purpose. The speech was compared to late leader Mao Zedong’s 1942 Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art. Although past leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had made comments on the role of art and culture in the country, Lui says that under Deng’s direction the party had allowed a certain degree of freedom. But the removal of the film and press functions from the State Administration, which was under the State Council, and their placement under the party’s propaganda department, was a reversal, he adds.

More propaganda films in Hollywood blockbuster style, such as “Wolf Warrior 2” and “Operation Red Sea,” are expected. “Red Sea” helmer Dante Lam is planning another rescue movie with the support of the country’s transport department. Lui says these films’ success, tied in with the rise of nationalism in China, reflects Xi’s great Chinese dream.

Those who do not follow these lines will be given a hard time or have little chance to survive. Liu Jian’s critically acclaimed animated feature “Have a Nice Day,” a dark comedy about people’s worship of money in Chinese society, was China’s first animated film to compete at the Berlinale last year. It picked up the top animation award at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards last year. It was forced to withdraw from the Annecy Intl. Animated Film Festival in France last summer and was not been able to get released until January.

This year also saw the ban of hip-hop and performers with tattoos on TV despite the explosive success of iQiyi’s 2017 hit reality show “The Rap of China,” which garnered more than 1.3 billion views in just one month. Co-champion GAI was forced to quit hit TV show “I Am a Singer 2018” after appearing in just one episode.

The Chongqing native was reportedly a juvenile offender and publicly displayed his worship for money. His previously called himself “Grandpa GAI Only Knows Money” on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and has written songs about his attitude toward money.

“It’s an example showing how subculture should be contained under the new order,” says Shanghai-based critic Bono Lee.

The move of placing film under the propaganda department has sparked concerns among some Hong Kong filmmakers, who have already been on their toes when they make films in mainland China.

“There will just be a greater degree of self-censorship when it comes our creative ideas,” says one Hong Kong film director who has projects in mainland China and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“With censorship in China, you never know what’s OK and what’s not. To get the scripts and final film approved, you have to let go of a lot of material that could cause the film and investors trouble.”

But not everyone is pessimistic. Chinese indie film producer Rachel Song believes there are still chances to make great films. “Right now we cannot change the policy. But as filmmakers we can only do our best to find local stories that have universal values and can be embraced by audience and government officials,” she says.