China: Censorship of independent art has never been harsher

30 September 2014


China says it wants to promote ‘culture’ but its censorship of independent art has never been more systemic, reports Oiwan Lam from Beijing, where authorities clamped down on yet another independent film festival in August 2014.

By Oiwan Lam

Chinese authorities shut down the 11th Annual Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) and arrested the festival’s organizers on Saturday 23 August 2014. The festival is organized annually by the Li Xianting Film Fund, which is located on the outskirts of Beijing city, in Songzhuang district’s Xiaobao village.

Chinese leaders have spoken publicly about their desire to promote homegrown culture, but crackdowns such as this one show a reality that is vastly different from the rhetoric.

Promoting culture
The new leadership of the Chinese Community Party under President Xi Jinping vowed to promote China’s soft power by pushing forward the cultural industry. In the past few years, state-controlled film corporates have invested in a number of big movies by building partnerships with their Hong Kong and Taiwan counterparts, thus establishing a pan-Chinese film market.

In addition, the quota for imported foreign movies keeps expanding. U.S.–China co-production is encouraged, under the condition that all films produced under this collaboration are subject to China’s censorship mechanism.

While China has indeed become the world’s biggest market for cultural consumption, the government has no plans to relax its control over cultural output. In fact, the clampdown on independent art activities has never been harsher.

Film Festival shut down
On 23 August, police officers blocked off three roads leading to the office of the Li Xianting Film Fund. The security police mobilized local villagers to raid the office of the Li Xianting Film Fund, shoved over the attendants of the film festival, and confiscated their mobile phones. Below is a video showing the confrontation:

To further ensure that the festival would not take place, the authorities cut the electricity of the Li Xianting Film Fund office and confiscated all the festival flyers and film archives that the fund had accumulated over the last decade.

The police arrested three festival organizers – Li Xianting, Wang Hongwei and Fan Rong, and held them in custody until they signed documents stating that they would cancel the festival. So far, police have not pressed any official charges.

Li Xianting is a forerunner of independent art – a critic and curator. He led a group of avant-garde artists in building the Songzhuang community after the Yuanmingyuan artist community was shut down in 1995. Li founded the Li Xianting Film Fund in 2006 and established a film school in 2008 to cultivate a new generation of filmmakers with “a spirit of independent creative production.”


“The darkest day”
Film director Huang Wehai called the crackdown “the darkest day in the history of Chinese independent film.”


Organisers anticipated some degree of police harassment, since the state security police had disrupted the film festival in years past. In 2012, police cut the electricity supply during the opening ceremony, but the festival survived in itinerancy, holding screenings in various artist workshops in Songzhuang.

This year, organizers tried to negotiate with the police for the right to show the films at a remote venue. To allow for the possibility of guerilla screenings, promotional materials intentionally withheld the exact locations of the venues.

The negotiations failed. The festival faced pressure from multiple government authorities, including the Ministry of Education, Industrial and Commercial Bureau, and the Tax Bureau. Even the Immigration Bureau stepped in, waiting at the airport to question foreign film directors who flew to Beijing for the festival.

After the festival was shut down, Chinese propaganda authorities issued censorship instructions to major news outlets across China to delete any news of the incident.

Festivals fall into a grey area
In China, all films intended for theatrical release must be approved by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Since the films in the festival were being shown for a niche audience of fans and filmmakers rather than striving for a wide release, film festivals such as the BIFF fall into a censorship grey area. Whether or not the festival is allowed to take place depends on the political climate at the time.

The BIFF raid is not an isolated incident. Two other film festivals – the Yunnan Multi-Cultural Visual Festival and Nanjing Independent Film Festival were shut down in March and November of 2013. Furthermore, Chinese authorities forced the Li Xianting Film School to close its training program in July 2013.

Li Xianting stressed in an interview on August 24 that independent film is an art form, and that the films being shown expressed emotions rather than political stances. “We did not get involved with politics,” said Xianting, “Politics became involved with us.”


Schedule of 2014 film festival – 2014 festival selections were mainly experimental films from young directors from the pan-Chinese region which were being screened publicly for the first time.

Yang Lina, an independent documentary maker, told AP that she believed the crackdown was a suppression of individual freedom.

They just want us to make films about food, clothes, entertainment. They don’t want people to think, they don’t want people to have the freedom to express themselves, they don’t want people to have independent and free ideas.


Eye-shut protest. Photo from Zhang Zhen’s Facebook

To protest against the crackdown, a number of artists and activists uploaded photos of themselves with their eyes shut. International film festival organizers spoke out against the incident as well. More than 30 film festival organizers in the U.S, Europe, Asia and Latin Amercia have co-signed a petition expressing deep concern about the police confiscation of the film archives, and urged the Chinese authorities to permit the BIFF to “pursue its mission to nurture and exhibit (…) alternative cinematic voices in China, to allow the festival to operate without interference, and to allow the Li Xianting Film Fund to continue its vital mission of archiving and supporting independent Chinese filmmakers.”

However, so long as the Chinese Communist Party sees culture as an instrument to promote the nation’s image “as a civilized country with rich history, ethnic unity and cultural diversity, and as an oriental power with good government, developed economy, cultural prosperity, national unity and beautiful mountains and rivers,” independent minds that are at odds with this vision will be seen as oppositional forces that need to be suppressed, or, ‘reformed’. So long as the nationalistic soft power project continues to pursue such a top-down approach, the future of Chinese independent art sector is rather dim.

Photo on top of this page: Poster of the 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival. Courtesy of @johndjinggang


This article was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide and Global Voices for It was funded by a grant from CKU. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Oiwan Lam, Freemuse and Global Voices, and linking to the origin.

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