|Producer and media researcher David Bandurski.|
David Bandurksi, the American Hong Kong-based producer of Chinese director Zhao Dayong, recently penned an opinion piece in the New York Times on what he calls China’s “third affliction” – the nation’s negative image in the world. The piece doesn’t contain anything revelatory for those familiar with contemporary China’s cultural and political landscape, but it’s a neat encapsulation of the schizophrenic nature of China’s cultural sector, split as it is between closely controlled, anodyne state-sanctioned product, and a vibrant unofficial sector which is at best ignored by the state, and at worst actively suppressed.
In my last Newsbites post I wrote about the sixth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party that took place in October, focusing on “cultural reforms.” Bandurski writes of this meeting:
“The message behind the turgid ideological phrasings and the rodomontade about how the party was leading ‘the great reawakening of the Chinese people’ was that China’s leaders would encourage culture so long as it served their narrow political ends. The Decision states emphatically that China’s rank-and-file ‘cultural workers’ must uphold the party’s ‘main theme’ and ‘keep to the correct orientation’ in cultural creation.”
Which is Party-speak for ‘do what we want or look out.’ Meanwhile, as Bandurksi notes, a filmmaker like Zhao Dayong can pack out the Lincoln Center in New York with the premier of his documentary Ghost Town, while having to live with the “bittersweet recognition that this moment would never have been possible in Zhao’s own China.”
Bandurski also notes that:
“No sooner had the curtain closed on the C.C.P. meeting in Beijing than media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan reported with unmistakable schadenfreude that an Oct. 17 showing at Lincoln Center of the 2009 Chinese propaganda epic The Founding of a Republic had drawn not a single filmgoer.”
I’m a bit stunned that Founding of a Republic didn’t manage to attract a single viewer (where were the Chinese consular staff??), but there you go. As I wrote in an article for The Diplomat last year, Founding of a Republic is a fascinating piece of CCP revisionism, that sees the party depicting itself as a unifying, pro-capitalist force from the earliest days of the People’s Republic – a pretty stunning rewriting of history given the history of China under Mao.
Bandurski’s comments come at the end of a particularly tough year for Chinese filmmakers working outside the state-sanctioned production and distribution system. As was widely reported, Ai Weiwei disappeared for several months earlier this year after being arrested at Beijing airport, and has now been slapped with a massive tax bill. Ai Xiaoming suffered all kinds of harassment from local authorities in Guangzhou in the first half of the year, and security personnel intervened outside her apartment to stop me interviewing her in March. Beijing’s Queer Film Festival and Tongzhou Documentary Festival were both forced to officially cancel (though some unpublicized screenings were reportedly held). And now, with the year drawing to a close, filmmaker Jian Yi has been forced to close his IFChina Studio at Jinggangshan University.
In short, while China’s leaders wax bureaucratic about the nation’s glorious culture, they are busy doing everything in their power to suppress the creative energy of their people. Let’s hope things ease up in 2012 – so far the signs aren’t looking good.
As well as producing Zhao Dayong’s films such Ghost Town and The High Life, David Bandurski is a researcher for the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. You can read more of his commentary on Chinese media and politics here.