Tuesday, June 19, 2007

China's dirty laundry

Despite the bad reviews, I was excited about seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean 3," and I was happy to hear that it is being shown in the theaters in China, since everyone knows that seeing a movie in a theater is much better than watching it at home. I was also interested to see what they would do with Chow Yun-fat, the Chinese Pirate King!! :)

Then I learned that parts the film have been censored in China. Why? I asked. Was it too violent? Was there nudity? Did Disney pirates of the 19th century advocate Tibetan independence?

No: they had cut half of Chow Yun-fat's scenes because they "vilify and humiliate the Chinese," as Xinhua, China's official news wire, reported.

I haven't seen the movie yet (and I certainly won't in a Chinese theater), but according to some blogs, it's now difficult to follow the plot. The censors were apparently offended by Chow's bald head, long nails, and scarred skin. It reminded me of the reasons behind China's censorship of "Mission Impossible III," when scenes were cut in which Tom Cruise is in China, and runs past laundry hanging from clotheslines. I suppose the censors didn't want China to be portrayed as a "backward" country, in which, presumably, people hang laundry from clotheslines.

Such censorship is unbelievably inane, and indicates the hyper-sensitivity and pride that is often prevalent in contemporary Chinese nationalism. It's not even proper censorship! Usually things are censored because they are "subversive" in some way. "Devils on the Doorstep," a film about Chinese villagers in World War II, was banned in China for obvious reasons: the villagers in the film are often foolish and weak, and there's no sign of the Communist army. But what possible reasoning lies behind banning images of clothes hanging from clotheslines from a version of the movie that will only be shown in China? Even if we accept the idea that clothes on a clothesline indicates backwardness, there is no other way to hang clothes in China (the only dryer I've ever seen in this country was in a US consulate). Will Chinese viewers who see the clothes suddenly realize their country is backward?

The reasoning behind the censored bits of "Pirates" is slightly less hazy, though equally absurd. One film magazine wrote that Chow's appearance is "in line with Hollywood's old tradition of demonizing the Chinese." That may be so (though "tradition" is a bit strong), but how does preventing Chinese people from seeing those scenes possibly help the situation? Will a Chinese viewer suddenly get depressed because he realizes that his ancestors must have been pirate kings with bald heads and scars?

These are cases of censorship not being thought through, and of China's frequent bristling defensiveness about how foreigners view the country. They are annoying and ridiculous, but they are basically harmless. However, they may also be indications of the Chinese censorship system, which is quite sophisticated, slowly going crazy as it tries to censor too many things coming into the country. To a large extent the system relies on people's apathy -- after all, anyone who is determined can find restricted information. But China is so big, and is changing so fast, that the censors may feel they can't possibly keep up, so they panic too easily and react too hastily.

Beyond cutting out cinematic laundry, the deep absurdity of China's censorship system, and of censorship itself, is revealed during those moments when the system comes full circle to bite itself in the behind. On June 6 of this year, a very small classified ad was published in the Chengdu Evening News that read, "Paying tribute to the strong[-willed] mothers of June 4 victims." It was referring to a group of mothers of students who were killed during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, and who have been vocal in demanding answers from the government about the massacre. Normally, such a thing would never have gotten through, but, according to a source from the Chengdu paper who was quoted in a Hong Kong newspaper, the clerk who received the ad was born in the 1980s and had never heard of the Tiananmen protests. As a result, she didn't know that she was supposed to censor it.

Censorship of information about the Tiananmen protests is revealed to be remarkably, frighteningly effective, so effective that it doesn't work, as censorship never does. And what happened to the girl who unknowingly let the ad slip through? It's unclear, but according to an Internet blogger who may have contacts at the Chengdu paper, several editors have been fired, and the poor clerk has been arrested.

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