How Beijing is taking censorship to a new level

June 01, 2018 10:53
Chinese authorities are said to have reservations about ‘Deep in the Realm of Conscience', a historical period drama, even though the producers played safe and offered a highly sanitized version. Photo: Marc TV

"Deep in the Realm of Conscience", a primetime blockbuster historical period drama launched by the Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB), has been aired in Hong Kong since May 21.

However, the drama, which is set against the backdrop of the ancient Tang dynasty and depicting the cutthroat rivalries and intense power struggle within the imperial court, was pulled from -- which is owned by Tencent, the co-producer of the drama series -- at the last minute on the orders of mainland authorities.

The drama was initially arranged to be aired on across the mainland on the same day as it opened in Hong Kong.

Rumors have it that there are two reasons why the show was banned: first, there is a concern among mainland officialdom that the plot of the historical drama might be used to satirize the current regime.

Then second, one of its lead female characters, Nancy Wu, had posted a picture on Instagram that was seen as a show of support for the Occupy pro-democracy campaign that took place in Hong Kong four years ago.

Some mainland netizens have managed to find that picture and circulate it online again.

Nevertheless, all that the picture shows is a crowd of people with no sight of any slogan.

And all Nancy Wu says in her brief comment is that she feels "solidarity" on that night, and that she hopes for a better tomorrow for Hong Kong.

It would be definitely hilarious and ridiculous if a multi-million-dollar joint production involving major Hong Kong and mainland investors was banned just because of an online picture and a subtle comment posted on the social media by one of its leading actresses.

If that rumor is true, then does that mean from now on, all actors and actresses would have to be pre-vetted for "subversive remarks" before they can be cast for any TV show or movie that is going to be aired in the mainland?

In my opinion, the most possible reason why the drama was suddenly pulled from the internet is that Beijing is further tightening its propaganda policies.

On one hand, from Beijing’s point of view, a drama like "Deep in the Realm of Conscience" that depicts power struggle in the imperial court could be used by some to hint at what has been going on within the current communist party leadership.

On the other, the main theme of the drama, i.e. the intense political rivalries and Machiavellian back-door maneuvers within the imperial court, could be spreading negative message across society and work against the current mainstream propaganda policy that emphasizes social harmony.

In fact according to the latest guidelines released by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, online entertainment programs must fulfill the purposes of spreading the advanced culture of socialism, facilitating social harmony, and strongly highlighting the superb Chinese cultural heritage.

Meanwhile, the mainland authorities have also demanded that online programs should serve to enrich people’s spiritual realm and cultivate a positive temperament among viewers.

And thanks to these strict instructions from the top brass, quite a number of high-profile and eagerly anticipated period dramas that also depict power struggles within the ancient imperial court have been banned in recent years.

What is truly ironic about the saga is that the drama in fact had already been heavily self-censored and sanitized by TVB itself beforehand in order to avoid any trouble.

Unluckily, it appears mainland officials in charge of propaganda still weren’t happy with this highly sanitized version.

What happened to the “Realm” may serve as a signal that from now on, all Hong Kong-Mainland joint productions, except for those state-sponsored propaganda movies that praise the communist party or the People’s Liberation Army to the skies, could be at risk of being banned.

I really miss the good old days during the 1980s, when mainland television producers and writers enjoyed a lot more free speech and creative freedom, thereby giving rise to such monumental TV documentary series as “River Elegy” (河殤), which reflects on Chinese culture in a highly provocative and polemical fashion.

Back in the days of the Cultural Revolution, public entertainment across China was largely dominated by party propaganda, such as the infamous “8 model plays”.

Unfortunately, as Beijing is determined to unify ideology and public opinion across the nation, it seems the mainland is gradually returning to that old ultra-left track.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 26

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor