April 13, 2006


A Reuters story about China tightening censorship rules on TV shows made the rounds yesterday and, not to pick on the hand that feeds me, one of the results was this article in Variety which begins:

"More bad news for Western media congloms vying to break into China's lucrative market: China's communist party has again tightened its grip on the industry with a raft of rules for TV dramas and news, while Internet orgs have pledged to censor indecent content.

The State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (Sarft) has ordered officials who vet TV dramas to make sure producers stick to the script and avoid forbidden subjects.

Historical soap operas dealing with political or military issues described by Sarft as "major or sensitive" must get government approval. If they vary from the script, they risk being banned."

But over on Danwei, they've reported the new announcement as largely positive, noting that it has turned over the responsibility for reviewing and determining the appropriateness of TV show topics to provincial level bodies, rather than a national body; that it has changed from a quarterly review system to a monthly review system; that previously where a project approved on a certain topic had a three year monopoly on that topic - resulting in a recent production of WHITE-HAIRED DEMONESS getting rejected because SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) said there were too many similar projects being planned - now the producers only have a 60 day window after approval to start filming or their production is scrapped; and they've opened up a website where producers can see all the other TV productions in the works and make their own determinations about what the market will bear. This is a big change for SARFT which previously had the responsibility of ensuring a balance of topics on TV. Now they've handed that responsibility over to production companies.

While Danwei notes, as do the Western articles, that the announcement also contains a warning for local news to get their info only from Chinese rather than foreign sources, they otherwise note that this is a good example of SARFT doing a little decentralizing, and letting the market determine what gets on TV rather than dictating it. In China, the press has mostly focused on how this is another remnant of the "planned economy" being phased out and while it could result in more censorship, overall it looks to be the opposite. They even include the following:

"Wang Weiping, deputy director of SARFT's TV Drama Department, admits that there may be some chaos in the industry as producers adapt to the new way of doing things, but he said that the government chose to relinquish a bit of its oversight because the country's production companies are relatively strong; some smaller producers, however, may find themselves unable to compete now that they no longer can acquire a monopoly on a popular subject."

So how did the Western media get from an annoucement that Chinese speakers view as largely a loosening of restrictions to a story about a tightening of restrictions? Danwei's suggestion: ignorance of how these documents usually appear.

"It's true that the preamble to the memo goes on at length about "strengthing political consciousness," but that sort of boilerplate may not mean anything significant. This "sensitive issues" have appeared in prior SARFT documents - the earlier system required certain topics to be pre-approved by relevant government departments, and SARFT's movie review system treats those topics as "special" as well. What seems to be going on here is that SARFT is turning its review responsibility over to provincial-level oversight bodies, and is reiterating its own in-house requirements for their benefit...It seems to me that Reuters simply did not do any homework about previous TV regulations, and assumed that the new rules must be stricter than the old..."

Unless one automatically assumes that every scrap of news that comes out of China is automatically government-issued propaganda the question becomes: does the West have too much of a vested interest in an outdated depiction of China to report on it accurately?

April 13, 2006 at 07:50 AM in News | Permalink


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The Western media (with a few exceptions, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times) usually gets China wrong. Someone goes to China for a week and comes back thinking they know all. Danwei knows Chinese media and I'm going with their interpretation.


Posted by: China Law Blog | Apr 13, 2006 8:56:32 AM

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