In early March 2016, the leaking of censorship guidelines produced by China’s leading body on television drama production led to criticism from Internet users and television audiences.
The guidelines were created by the China Television Drama Production Industry Association (CTDPIA), an association with almost 400 member production companies that, combined, account for 90% of China’s TV production. Among the criticism levelled at the CTDPIA’s guidelines was the accusation that they discriminate against gays and lesbians. The guidelines classified homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior,” and unsuitable for television audiences. Other banned themes included extramarital affairs and one-night stands, as well as content that contradicts “the spirit of scientific reason,” such as witchcraft, reincarnation, or “feudal superstitious beliefs.”
In an interview with Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, head of the CTDPIA You Xiaogang — himself a TV drama director with over 40 titles to his name — explains the thinking behind the guidelines. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You Xiaogang at a Chinese TV series promotional event in Beijing, Oct. 27, 2011. IC
Yang Siting: When were the guidelines put into place and what was the driving cause behind them?
You Xiaogang: Last year around September, we [the CTDPIA] had a meeting with the head office of [government media supervision body] the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), where we suggested that we come up with something that built on the basic principles of TV censorship, as a reference for those in the process of production. The idea was to prevent producers having to make changes once their work had already reached the censorship stage, which can be a burden and cause losses.
The rules and regulations set out by SAPPRFT are the industry’s bottom line. The new guidelines are about self-discipline within the industry. They are consistent with the industry’s basic principles to maintain public order and moral standards. For practitioners in the field, it is a kind of safety net, as well as a reminder, lest they make mistakes during productions that lead to losses.
The guidelines are there to tell everyone what is appropriate and what is not based on our country’s current situation. It’s just like building a highway — if you don’t paint the lanes, it will be utter chaos.
Yang Siting: So the guidelines won’t be a set of mandatory rules?
You Xiaogang: Well, the association is not a law enforcement agency. The guidelines do not carry judicial validity. However, members of our industry, for example members of our association, should follow it as a self-regulation measure. Otherwise, you’ll be on your own when the time comes and you can’t pass the screening process. What we are giving everybody is the end result of years of experience in production. It’s there so that no one’s work will be in vain.
Yang Siting: Internet users have questioned the categorization of homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior,” along with incest and sexual abuse. Some suspect that behind it is discrimination against the gay community.
You Xiaogang: That’s not exactly the case. I’m not going to get into whether homosexuality is acceptable socially or legally. What it comes down to is that homosexual content won’t pass the censors. The guidelines we’ve made are solely about production, there’s no need to go off on tangents. Should we let them go ahead with production, knowing that the work won’t be broadcast? Is that being indiscriminant? Why waste your money? Why waste all that production?
Yang Siting: In many specific provisions of the guidelines, words like “excessive,” “specific,” and “overly” are used to describe levels of restriction. Where do you draw the line?
You Xiaogang: There isn’t a single item in the guidelines that is new. We didn’t create them on a whim. These are rules that have been in existence for years. They’re like traffic rules: you can do this, but you can’t do that. If at one point something that used to be a no-no is allowed, then so be it. If all of a sudden there is another policy adjustment and we have to think again about certain content, well then everyone will have to pay attention. These things are fairly subjective. We all just have to look out for ourselves.
Take spiritual possession for example. It shouldn’t be portrayed as a supernatural event, but approached scientifically. For example, how are you going to represent the reincarnation of Tibetan monks? It’s simple: Respect the religion and customs of our Tibetan compatriots, don’t approach it looking for novelty, and don’t portray it without due care in other material, lest we create unnecessary misunderstandings between different ethnic groups.
Another example is kissing or fondling scenes in normal romances. What are the standards? How do we shoot them in a way that can get past the screening process? The key is to be sensible. It’s perfectly fine to portray romance in a healthy and moderate way. However, gratuitous content that is simply there to excite the viewer should be avoided.
We also advise producers to restrict representations of romantic relationships between minors, along with underage smoking, drinking, and fighting, all of which exist in reality. Puppy love isn’t illegal, but we shouldn’t encourage it, should we?
There is also the regulation that stipulates producers should “avoid appeals for the reconsideration of historical figures about whom verdicts have already been made.” In assessing this, we must ask: Where does the verdict come from? Are there specific time periods or individuals involved? Here I must say that TV dramas are there for a mass audience. There is no need to upset existing conclusions about certain events or historical figures that are already accepted by the public. There’s no need for sensationalism. Questioning history is the job of historians. As TV producers, you don’t need have the need — nor the qualifications — to take on such research duties.
Yang Siting: Will the guidelines bear any relevance to imported foreign shows?
You Xiaogang: Foreign shows are the remit of SAPPRFT. Our guidelines cater to Chinese productions.
Yang Siting: There has been talk that policies on web series are tightening, that “what doesn’t belong on TV doesn’t belong online either.” Is that true?
You Xiaogang: I can’t comment on that. However, I don’t think it’s about tightening or not. It’s just about whether there’s standardization. It wasn’t standardized before, so let’s standardize it now.
Yang Siting: Will this kind of environment keep creators from pushing the boundaries and creating new things?
You Xiaogang: Of course you can try new things, as long they are within the boundaries of what is permitted, and are compatible with today’s social order. Of course you can experiment, be it on TV or the Internet. But surely the existence of a rule is better than the absence of one, isn’t it? We’re giving you the guidance up front, a yardstick for creators to keep in their minds.
That SAPPRFT has publicized their points of views is a good thing. You can make adjustments accordingly. If you refuse to adjust, and insist that you write it in your own way, then go for it. You are free to do as you please, but whether your work makes it out or not is down to the rules. So you may as well just follow them. Of course, the rules might change, and you can just wait until they’re changed. It’s very simple. It’s how everything is.
Yang Siting: What would you like to say to the Internet users and audiences who have been following this matter with both interest and skepticism?
You Xiaogang: The guidelines are for the industry, not the audience. It’s part of our production procedure. They’re like safety regulations in the food industry. We’re providing the manufacturer a set of industry standards. Whether the customer buys the product or not, whether they eat it or not, is another matter entirely. People have no need to overreact. It’s just how we’ve always done things. You want to produce a TV show? Well pick up the guidelines and have a look. If you’re just an audience member, just choose the shows you like.
Internet users don’t make TV dramas — they are the audience. The guidelines are something we’ve developed with SAPPRFT to prevent producers from pushing the boundary too far and slamming into a brick wall as a result. If something had slammed into that wall, the audience would never even have seen it. So I don’t understand their skepticism. This isn’t the U.S. This isn’t Korea. This is China. Surely, Chinese television should reflect China’s society.
(Header image: Three teenagers at the Wuxi National Digital Film Industry Park watch a TV broadcast of the hit series, ‘The Empress of China,’ in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, June 6, 2015. Zhu Jipeng/VCG)