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China vs. Film Freedom

By jailing a filmmaker and pulling Chinese films from the Palm Springs festival, China exposes the limits of
its tolerance for free speech.

China’s constitution proclaims that citizens enjoy free speech and press. On blogs and bulletin boards, Chinese can and do discuss a huge variety of issues. However, the limits to what can be said have been dramatically illustrated over the past few weeks.

On December 28, self-taught Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen was sentenced to six years in prison, family members say. Wangchen has been in police custody since March 2008. He was arrested after violence broke out in Tibet, and just after he passed on more than 40 hours of videotaped interviews with 108 Tibetans to a British citizen of Tibetan descent. Wangchen knew he was taking risks. He had gone to India in 1993 and met the Dalai Lama. Before he began filming, he sent his wife and four children to India. According to the Web site for Leaving Fear Behind, the short documentary he made using the interviews, Wangchen wanted to focus attention on Tibet during the run up to the Olympics. He argued that if China’s government “really want[s] to preserve and improve Tibetan culture and language in Tibet, then they should withdraw Chinese people living in Tibetan areas.” The Web site with Wangchen’s film is blocked within China.

Chinese authorities are also working to deny such voices an audience outside of China. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, currently underway here in Southern California, was to feature two films from China: Lu Chuan’s incredibly powerful City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!), and Ye Kai’s documentary Quick, Quick, Slow. Last week, China Film Group, a state-run company, yanked them from the program.

Festival head Darryl Macdonald says Chinese diplomats told him that the Chinese films would be pulled because the fest includes The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom, a documentary by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. Asked about the decision to pull his film, Lu Chuan told The Hollywood Reporter that he appreciated being included in the festival and wanted audiences to see his film. He said that he knew nothing about the Tibet film or its makers, but added, “when it comes to Tibet and politics, we directors have no choice but to stand together with our film company.”

A Chinese official reportedly told Macdonald that since the U.S. government recognizes China’s sovereignty over Tibet, including The Sun Behind the Clouds put the festival at odds with not only Beijing but Washington. The official was right about U.S. policy, but naive if he thought that festival organizers would worry about this. Macdonald says that he replied, “Sorry, this is an arts event, and we believe in freedom of expression.”

China’s leaders see things differently. Mao Zedong’s economic policies were jettisoned long ago, but his thinking on art still drives state policy. In 1942 he said, “There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.”

So Palm Springs festival organizers could have anticipated that Chinese authorities would force them to choose between having access to Chinese films and filmmakers, and screening films the Chinese state condemns. In July, films were pulled from an Australian festival after organizers there refused to drop a film featuring an interview with Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer. Beijing accused Kadeer and the Uyghur World Congress of fomenting the riots that took nearly 200 lives earlier that month. In spring 2008, China’s government blamed “the Dalai clique” for unrest in Tibet and pro-Tibet demonstrations that hounded the Olympic torch relay. Though neither Kadeer nor the Dalai Lama say they seek independence, Beijing calls them separatists.

China’s leaders see participating in festivals that screen films they deem sympathetic to these individuals as consorting with anti-China forces. Participation is too important an issue, the leaders conclude, to be left to filmmakers to decide.

Clayton Dube, associate director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, is an expert on Sino-American relations and economic and political change in China.

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