Only two days before Ang Lee took home the Best Director Academy Award for Life of Pi, authorities in China — where the Taiwan-born director is very popular — passed new rules to tighten supervision over documentary films.
The two unrelated events have been seized upon by filmgoers and media commentators, fanning the flames of a long-running debate about whether censorship is stifling talent in China even as directors in Taiwan and Hong Kong win global acclaim.
“Taiwan has Ang Lee, Hong Kong has Wong Kar-wai. And the mainland?” asked Paris Feng, a designer, in a message on Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo.
The message, forwarded more than 1,000 times, elicited a range of responses, many critical of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), the body in charge of regulating films.
“China only has SARFT”, said one blogger in reply to Mr. Feng’s question. Mr. Lee’s Academy Award triumph was the most discussed topic on Sina Weibo on Monday, generating more than 30 million posts and comments.
His success has brought fresh criticism of Sarft’s policies. Its new rules to regulate documentary films, which came into effect on February 23, state that all television documentaries for public broadcast must first be reviewed by Sarft. Even before filming starts, a content summary, cast list and shooting plan must be approved by the body, the Communist Party-run The Global Times newspaper reported.
The rules were criticised by media commentators, who say censorship restrictions have outlived their use and purpose at a time when an increasing number of Chinese are turning to social media websites, like Weibo; and a booming underground DVD market to circumvent the limitations still in place on television stations and public screenings.
“The same day that a Chinese director, Ang Lee, won an Oscar, SARFT issued new requirements making documentaries, like films and television shows, go through reviews,” wrote banker Wang Ran to his 2.6 million followers on Weibo. “The Chinese government”, he added, “is only helping Hollywood maintain its global monopoly”.
Mr. Lee himself has had a strained relationship with Sarft. His first Oscar success a decade ago, when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Best Foreign Film award, was hailed here as a triumph for Chinese cinema.
The 2007 film Lust, Caution brought Mr. Lee critical acclaim but angered Sarft, which deleted several sex scenes and reportedly forced Mr. Lee to alter dialogues towards the end of the film where a Communist agent betrays the party. Chinese actress Tang Wei, who played the agent, was subsequently banned by Sarft for several years and blacklisted from working in the mainland. Only recently has she been allowed to emerge from the government-imposed ban.
State media, nevertheless, hailed Mr. Lee’s triumph on Monday despite his roots in Taiwan. The Xinhua news agency said in a report of Monday’s award, “Coming from China’s Taiwan, the 59-year-old Lee won the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and got another Oscar award for Best Director in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain”. “He is the first person of Asian descent,” the report added, “to win the Oscar for Best Director.”
The Chinese government regards Taiwan, which has been self-administered since 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek, leading Kuomintang, fled to the island, as a breakaway province. Cross-strait ties have improved in recent years, driven by closer economic linkages.
Only on Monday, new Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Lien Chan, the honorary chairman of the KMT, and declared it was “the duty of the new Communist Party leadership to continue promoting the peaceful development of cross-strait ties and peaceful reunification”.