CDT Chinese’s 404 Files: Why Films Get Banned from Douban

In the 404 Files podcast (404档案馆), CDT Chinese tells multimedia stories of censorship and circumvention in China. The following is a translation of the transcript of Episode 36, released on October 27, a deep dive into why films get pulled from the entertainment rating platform Douban. This week, the Cyberspace Administration hit Douban with a 1.5 million yuan fine for “unlawful release of information,” following a 9 million yuan fine last month. Douban has suspended its comment function until December 17, a measure that all but eviscerates the social media platform that was designed for users to talk about film, books, and music. You can subscribe to 404档案馆 in any podcast app, or check out their Youtube channel.

Welcome to the 404 Files. Come scale the Great Firewall with us.

Today we’re talking about one of the latest additions to CDT’s 404 Archive: an article that looks at 30 films removed from Douban.

Douban is an online platform where the high and low brow meet to rate and talk about books, movies, and music. It is the bellwether for a film’s popularity. But ever since the government’s increasingly pervasive censorship system trained itself on Douban, scores of movies with high ratings have been removed and banned from the site.

The 404 Archive post includes 30 films that have been taken down from Douban. But why were they censored? Let’s take a closer look.

Number One: Political Sensitivities Are Paramount

Most representative of the Chinese films taken down is “Summer Palace,” directed by Lou Ye. It’s a story of confusion and passion shared by two university sweethearts at the end of the 80s, and of their disillusionment when they join the adult world. “Summer Palace” was banned, and cannot even be mentioned, because it portrays the Tiananmen protests, including scenes of martial law troops opening fire on civilians. The June 4 incident is the Achilles’ heel of the Chinese Communist Party, an event that calls into question its very legitimacy.

Also on the list are many films from Hong Kong. For example, in “The Mobfathers,” starring Anthony Wong and Chapman To, a gangland election serves as an allegory for the murky world of politics. In real life, Wong and To are staunch defenders of Hong Kong’s freedoms, and have repeatedly criticized the machinations of the Party-backed government of Hong Kong. In return their films are banned, and the actors are frequently attacked by official media and by little pinks for “humiliating China.”

The 2015 film “Ten Years” imagines a dystopian Hong Kong in 2025 ruled with an iron-fist. With the erosion of democratic institutions following the passage of the National Security Law, the film is closer to reality than you would think. On August 24, the Hong Kong government announced revisions to the Film Censorship Ordinance that would allow a film’s permit to be revoked if officials feel it is harmful to  national security.  Hong Kong was once the movie capital of Asia, but today it seems that just about anything could be censored. It’s no surprise that “Ten Years” was banned.

Number Two: Don’t Even Mention Democracy

Aside from “national security” concerns, anything the Party sees as a “hostile element,” like  democracy or freedom, must be completely rooted out. Foreign films are no exception. Take “The Lady,” a biopic about the democracy movement in Myanmar, and the Korean films “A Taxi Driver” and “Excavator,” both about the Gwangju Uprising which started the downfall of the dictatorship and catalyzed the democracy movement. Stories of resistance are what the authorities dread, and so are  quickly  banned from streaming and discussion.

[“Taxi Driver” was target of a directive published by CDT in October 2017, which ordered the deletion of “all introductions, online encyclopedia entries, film reviews, recommendations, and other articles” related to it.]

Then there’s the curious case of “V for Vendetta.”

Let’s hear what Youtube critic “Dr. Film Decoder” (@电影爆博士) has to say about it:

Simply put, “V for Vendetta” tells the tale of a revolutionary who violently topples a dictatorship, a recurring theme in human history and in film. The revolutionary anarchist “V” breaks the state’s monopoly on ideology, reveals the ruling class for the hypocrites that they are, and overturns their dictatorship through violent revolution.

Yup, the film describes a future Britain where the spark of revolution is lit by the masses. The theme of resistance permeates the film, embodied the oft-quoted line, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” So it was a shock to many when, on December 14, 2012, the film was aired, uncut, on CCTV.

Rights defender Hu Jia once tweeted:

This movie has it all: Dictators, prisons, secret police, media control, rebellion, elimination of “heretics,” panic, escape, propaganda, conquering fear, resistance and overthrowing tyrants. It’s just like the relationship between China’s dictators and its people.

At the time, some thought that CCTV’s airing of “V for Vendetta” was a positive signal from the new administration under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. But as political scientist Liu Shan-ying told Taiwan’s Central News Agency, the decision to show the film in its entirety  was likely made within CCTV itself:

Every media outlet is aware of the ceiling, and they usually keep their heads down to avoid hitting it. But, sometimes, there are a brave few among us who reach up to that ceiling and dare to speak out against censorship.

As the noose of censorship tightens, “V for Vendetta” was finally taken down from  China’s streaming platforms on August 15, 2020, and its page on Douban was deleted.

Number Three: The Sanctity of the Official Narrative

Aside from the two censorship principles we’ve just described, Party officials have a few other red lines. For example, the Korean historical films “The Great Battle” and “Once Upon a Time on a Battlefield” come up against a thorny point of contention between China and Korea: the sovereignty of the kingdom of Goguryeo. Because these films do not mesh with the Party’s official narrative, they were the target of nationalist attacks, and eventually taken down.

There are also  films about defectors from North Korea, such as “Crossing,” that have made it onto the ban list. For ideological and geopolitical reasons, China is always obsessive about North Korea, trying not to rock the political boat. China’s censors must really be exhausted: not only do they work around the clock to block criticism of the Party, they also bend over backwards to protect the glorious image of their little brother next door.

Also, the Censors Dream of a Unified Ratings System

These 30 films are a shadow of the real number that have been banned. CDT has collected a massive amount of sensitive words and removal orders related to film censorship in our Sensitive Words and 404 Archive series. In a future episode, we’ll break down 330 films and videos removed from LeTV, which is still only a fraction of the total taken down.

As one Zhihu user said:

There will come a day when, without rhyme or reason, that web page won’t open, that torrent will be removed, that cloud storage account will be shut down, that social media account will simply vanish. You’ll try in vain to refresh the page of that TV show, but it simply won’t load. No explanation, no answers. You won’t even know who to fight against.

An industry source has told BBC Chinese that over the past few years, China’s censorship regime has grown even stricter, with everything from scripting to permits to distribution facing censorship hurdles. And now, the authorities want to control the film rating platforms.

According to China Film News, Wang Xiaohui, the vice minister of the Propaganda Department’s Standing Committee and director of the China Film Administration, stated at the 2021 National Film Working Conference that a movie rating system will be perfected this year, fully integrating the political and the artistic, and social needs with market approval.

For the moment, these plans are embryonic. It remains to be seen if authorities are preparing to directly manage the three major platforms (Douban, Maoyan, and Tao Piao Piao) or if they’ll establish a new ratings system under the government’s direct control.

By  blocking and taking down content, the authorities are trying to suffocate creative and critical freedom. The end goal is to weaken independent thought, and to stifle grassroots interaction and activity.

In the words of director Ying Liang:

The nature of the system is such that it doesn’t need to tell you what exactly the standards or rules are. If you work within the system, be it in film, media, law, publishing, it’s all the same. You self-censor out of fear… Such a constant state of second-guessing and speculating can only weaken your sense of autonomy, and, in the end, stunt the growth of civil society.


Translated for CDT by Hamish.


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