Written this weekend as China hit its 136th day since cinemas shuttered nationwide, the letter has spread within film industry circles despite being censored on some platforms. Variety was unable to contact the author or verify its source.
Cinema workers, from popcorn salespeople to projectionists, have been unable to work since January, with many laid off or retained on bare-bones salaries. In poetic but outraged language, the statement rails at the inaction of the Chinese authorities responsible for the film sector in a series of increasingly brutal rhetorical questions.
“Have you taken any substantive steps to help employment? If so, then why are so many voices denouncing you? If it were you, and you were forced to go a long half year without salary or the ability to work, would you not also find it difficult to eat and sleep?” the letter reads.
It describes a growing wave of anger among the unemployed, highlighting the challenge that discontented workers pose to the ruling Communist Party in the wake of coronavirus.
“While the waters can bear the boat forward, they can also sink it. You thought there would be no big waves if you left things alone and didn’t take care of them. But those that you consider to be lowly masses will not tolerate [this], because this should not be your attitude,” it says.
“To serve the people is still your fundamental task. Please act, please let us ordinary workers see that you’re doing real things, and are not just raising your butt in the air and burying your head in the sand like an ostrich, saying everything is fine!”
Chinese cinemas have been closed since Jan. 23. The country’s top administrative body, the State Council, said in early May that all businesses including movie theaters could reopen in areas with low coronavirus risks, but local authorities have yet to issue permission for cinemas to do so.
“In the month since the State Council put out that announcement, what have you been doing?” the letter asked film industry officials and agencies.
“[You] various government department, various leaders, various gods holding yourselves so high above other people, are you deaf, dumb and blind? Under circumstances where the vast majority of film industry workers have not had even a shred of income for the past half year… are you not taking taxpayer money to fund your own salary while doing nothing?”
China has rebooted all other sectors of its economy, including entertainment options such as restaurants, hotels, KTVs (karaoke venues), internet cafes, gyms and swimming pools — indoor venues that often have worse ventilation and crowd control measures than cinemas. Why then must film alone be “the most wretched of all industries… the first to close and the last to re-open?” it asked.
Shutdown has been financially devastating for cinemas. In a Chinese industry association survey from the end of April, 42% of theaters said they believed they were “very likely to close” in the near future. That would mean a loss of some 5,000 venues and 28,000 screens.
Analysts say at least 2,300 cinemas already shut for good in the first two months of the country’s COVID-19 shutdowns.
The letter concludes with a famous revolutionary quote from Mao Zedong: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” That fire, it adds, “starts with me.”