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China’s TV, film industry shrinks amid ongoing censorship

China Censorship (Mike MacKenzie/Flickr)
December 22, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s ever-widening controls on the output of its movie and television industries has left a large chunk of its workforce unemployed, industry figures have revealed.

A-list actors are finding it harder and harder to get work, with more than 60 percent reporting a period of two or more years out of work in 2019, according to a report by the Yicai financial news website.

The problem seems to be affecting even the country’s TV idols, according to a survey cited by the article.

Around 65 percent of 9, 841 actors and celebrities in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan hadn’t been on television lately, while the high-profile roles are generally shared among less than one percent of the profession, the report said.

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Around 95 percent have had more than a year without being offered work, it said.

The article blamed the quality of the “market environment,” citing a drastic fall in the number of TV dramas approved by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

“By the third quarter of 2019, the number of television series being recorded had fallen by more than one third, compared with [the same period in] 2016,” it said.

And in the first half of 2019, there was a fall of 22.5 in the number of movies approved by SARFT compared with the same period last year.

SARFT approvals of TV shows and movies are closely linked to party ideology, and media regulators have issued a string of regulations since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012 calling for more “patriotic” and uplifting shows to be made, and banning content considered too vulgar, foreign, gory or politically suspect.

Fan Bingbing disappearance

A television industry source surnamed Jiang told RFA on Monday that many actors stopped working in the wake of the “disappearance” of actress Fan Bingbing last year.

Fan, who was missing from the public eye for nearly three months, resurfaced in October 2018 with a public apology, and was fined nearly U.S.$130 million for tax evasion.

Fan was forced to pay some U.S.$ 70 million in unpaid taxes, and around U.S.$60 million in tax arrears, but escaped criminal prosecution for paying the amount in full.

The X-Men: Days of Future Past star admitted to signing fraudulent contracts, known as “yin and yang” contracts, one of which contains the figure reported to the taxman, and the other of which states the actual amount paid, media reports indicated.

Commentators said at the time that while tax evasion and avoidance is common among high-earning individuals in China, the targeting of Fan suggested a political crackdown targeting the entertainment industry.

Jiang said many in the industry have been seeking a career change lately.

“There are two reasons for this. The first is there has been a crackdown on capital flows and money-laundering in the entertainment industry since the Fan Bingbing affair, so investors are few and far between,” he said.

“The second is that there is now very strict censorship of movies and television dramas.”

Some 1,884 film and television production companies folded in China this year, while the number of new startups has also plummeted, the Securities Daily newspaper reported.

Regulation and censorship

Jiangsu-based scholar Fan Bin said the entertainment industry has been hit by China’s economic downturn, but that isn’t enough to explain the sharp falls in the commissioning of new shows.

“It is likely a direct and strong correlation with the regulation of China’s entertainment industry,” Fan said. “A lot of film and TV projects are stalled as a direct consequence of censorship.”

In Hong Kong, the free-to-air station TVB announced it would make 350 members of staff redundant – around 10 percent of all its employees, local media reported.

In a letter to staff, group CEO Mark Lee blamed the economic recession, together with the past six months of protests to grip the city, for the layoffs.

But it also announced plans to develop a market targeting the Pearl River Delta cities, including neighboring cities in mainland China.

TVB, Hong Kong’s biggest television broadcaster, will undergo restructuring to boost its cost-effectiveness, laying off around 350 of its 3,500 staff.

TVB has been sharply criticized by protesters over the past few months for a pro-China bias when covering the protest movement, with many calling for a total boycott of the station.

A spokesman declined to give further details when contacted for comment by RFA on Monday.

Former TVB journalist and Hong Kong Baptist University journalism lecturer Bruce Lui said the station had been taken over by managers loyal to Beijing in recent years, and that the layoffs will likely contribute to its transformation into a party-backed media organization.

“There’s no question whether or not TVB is turning red,” Lui said. “I don’t think it can come back from the direction it has been heading in during recent years. It is getting redder, and more divergent from [the journalistic traditions] of Hong Kong.”