Authorities are handing more slots to documentaries, giving even independent filmmakers a chance to be shown on state television. But while China is avidly pursuing what it considers serious content to replace popular dating, reality and game shows, it is also stifling material with any whiff of challenging the Communist Party line. A weekend crackdown by authorities on an independent film festival in Beijing was the worst in its eight-year history, with police confiscating hundreds of films and briefly detaining two organizers.
China's broadcasting authority has been offering awards and an unspecified amount of financial support to domestic documentaries to boost their production, according to its website. In October, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television ordered provincial satellite channels to broadcast at least 30 minutes of domestically produced documentaries a day. In addition to state broadcaster CCTV's documentary channel, two documentary channels run by local broadcasters in Beijing and Shanghai became available nationally in June.
Independent filmmaker Hao Wu was one who benefited from the push — sort of.
His 80-minute feature documentary "The Road to Fame" was shown on state TV, but edited down and at midnight in half-hour parts over two consecutive nights on the national Hunan Satellite TV in May.
The film, also shown at festivals in the U.S. and Europe and broadcast on the BBC in December, follows a group of students at Beijing's prestigious Central Academy of Drama over eight months as they prepare to stage the American musical "Fame."
Wu, who now lives in New York, said he was angry when he saw how much Hunan had cut at first, including any social commentary and most of the character backstories. He said that after he resisted, the broadcaster restored some of the character stories, but left out scenes such as a parent talking about growing up in the Cultural Revolution, which meant he had limited chances to improve his life. Also deleted were scenes with a teacher calling the students fragile and spoiled because they were only children — which might be seen as casting China's birth limits in a negative light.
Wu said it is sometimes difficult for independent filmmakers to know whether their content is too sensitive for authorities.
"Taiwan issues, Tibet and Falun Gong, these are the big no-nos," he said. "Then beyond that, things get a little bit murkier. Social unrest, minority-ethnic tensions in China, these are the issues that ... the government may or may not censor."
Since Xi became chief of the ruling Communist Party in late 2012, the already strict controls on freedom of expression have been further tightened, targeting public discourse that could potentially undermine the party's monopoly on power. These have included the arrests of bloggers who post sensitive material and activists who have accused officials of corruption, and limits on who can disseminate news on mobile instant messaging services. At the same time, government agencies have proliferated their presence on social media to get their own messages out.
Authorities are keen to encourage documentaries such as "A Bite of China," a successful, well-polished documentary looking at regional food cultures to the backdrop of beautiful landscapes. It has been exported to dozens of countries, and its second season was broadcast on the flagship CCTV1 channel at prime time on Friday nights. It was produced by CCTV.
The government approves of such documentaries that "accord with the view of China as being a magical place full of interesting customs, traditions and good food," said Michael Keane, an expert on China's creative industries at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.
Li Xiaofeng, a documentaries expert at Nanjing University's School of Journalism and Communication, said the government was encouraging documentaries to help boost China's reputation abroad and to counter the trend of "too many" variety and other entertainment shows on local TV stations.
"There's a terrible shortage of domestic documentaries in the country," he said, adding that people in their 40s and below grew up watching blockbuster movies rather than documentaries. "I ask my students to name their 10 favorite documentaries, and they can't."
Kevin B. Lee, the vice president of programming for dGenerate Films, which distributes Chinese independent films to North America, said the Beijing Independent Film Festival, which was due to open this year on Saturday, was a "vital channel" for discovering young filmmakers.
Instead, police and plainclothes tough guys prevented the festival from going ahead and briefly detained organizer Li Xianting and artistic director Wang Hongwei. Li said police confiscated computers and more than 1,500 films — their archived material going back 10 years.
Lee said production of independent films on the mainland has "just flourished" over the past 10 years because equipment has become cheaper and more convenient. But he added that in the past two years, disruptions of film festivals have made it harder to know what's out there.
"I worry about the upcoming as-yet-unknown talents for whom really the festival is often the first exposure they have to an outside audience," Lee said.