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Is Costume Drama the Next Genre for Scrutiny by China’s Censors?

Leading Chinese streaming platform, Tencent Video this week failed to launch a high-profile period drama series. The surprise move sparked speculation that the staple court drama genre is now a target of encroaching censorship.

Set in the Tang Dynasty period, “Deep in the Realm of Conscience,” was co-produced by Hong Kong’s TVB and Tencent Penguin Pictures, on a budget reported at $15.7 million (RMB100 million). TVB premiered the show as planned on Monday. But Tencent said on its official Weibo social media account that the show’s premiere had to be postponed “due to certain reasons.” But it offered no meaningful explanation for the show’s disappearance, nor when it might eventually be released.

TVB, which also handled global sales outside China, ruled out a technical problem. “We have already achieved the goal of this collaboration. The product has already been delivered to [Tencent] and our production fees have been paid,” said Mark Lee, TVB’s CEO, at a shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

China has steadily increased its censorship of the media in recent years. That was crystallized this March by the shift of film and TV regulation from the State Administration for Film Radio Press Publishing and Television to directly supervision by the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

Regulators say that Internet programming must promote social harmony. That is precisely the opposite of what court dramas, full of plots and intrigues, depict on screen. But by locating the story hundreds of years ago program-makers have largely been able to argue that they are not dabbling in current politics.

“Chinese viewers – including Chinese censors – are adept at seeing current political parallels in historic dramas. It could be that terms like ‘this court will get rid of the prince to secure the nation’ may hit too close to home for an administration that has arguably waged an anti-corruption drive that has targeted its political rivals,” said William Nee, China analyst at Amnesty International. Nee also says that the mainland government is now busily rewriting history.

There are other indicators of a new squeeze on period drama. “Deep in the Realm” is a sequel to TVB’s “Beyond the Realm of Conscience,” a show which was considered acceptable nearly a decade ago, in 2009.

Nor is it alone. “Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace” starring award-winning actress Zhou Xun completed production last year and was supposed to be released this year. But it now appears to be eternally stuck in post-production.

Media commentator, Johnny Lau says the court drama ban shows China’s determination to further tighten control by restricting people from using historical stories as metaphors to criticize the ruling party.

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