China’s censors turn on “micro films”

Yesterday we shared a Sina Weibo post deleted by the authorities in which a Beijing-based producer of “micro films”, or wei dianying (微电影), put out a call for footage from the scene of last month’s Tianjin fire. That post offered a revealing glimpse into an emerging grey space in China — features and documentaries filmed on mobile phones and distributed to potentially mass audiences through social media.

Could such a space enable Chinese to delve deeper into sensitive or contested issues? With a “micro documentary”, for example, about the June 30 blaze at a shopping mall in Tianjin?

Not so fast, says China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT). The body, which controls and regulates all radio and television programming as well as like content online, announced new restrictions this week on “micro films”, “online dramas” and other emerging forms of video content.

The bottom line: the government is now staking out a position on this emerging grey space. Of course, we should bear in mind that this is not the first time SARFT has flexed its muscles over online video.


[ABOVE: A poster for the popular "micro film" Si Xin Men. Films like this could now come under much stricter scrutiny by the authorities.]

Released yesterday, the SARFT regulations, “Notice on the Further Strengthening of Regulations on Online Dramas, Micro Films and Other Online Audiovisual Programs” (关于进一步加强网络剧、微电影等网络视听节目管理的通知), cites vulgarity and general low taste as justification for tighter controls:

In recent years, online dramas, micro films and other online audiovisual programs have developed rapidly as a new form of online culture. But problems of vulgarity, tastelessness and dramatization of violence and sexuality have appeared in some programs, some are full of vulgar language, and some intentionally pander to base interests . . .

But a SARFT spokesperson clearly stated that “as cultural products directed toward mass audiences” online video programs had to “adhere to correct guidance,” a lynchpin propaganda policy that suggests control of not just vulgar or indecent content, but also of content that in the broadest sense goes against the policies, aims or “spirit” of the ruling Party.

In practice, it appears that the regulations demand that all online programs be subject to pre-approval before being distributed. Further, the regulations explicitly hold distributors of online video programming responsible for violations of propaganda discipline.

It remains to be seen how SARFT intends to enforce these regulations, particularly in the case of user-generated content. Clearly, if followed to the letter, the “Notice” would require massive resources.

Despite SARFT’s insistence that these new measures stem from a public outcry over online content, the reaction to the announcement online has been largely negative today.

A reporter for Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper steamed on Weibo: “You even want to concern yourself with the number of flies in the latrine! What is there that you don’t want to control? There’s not a single thing you can manage properly! And you still think the world will stop spinning if you don’t control it.”

The theme of control freaks who can control nothing adequately was a popular one. “You control everything, but manage nothing well!” said one user. “We should let these guys handle the problem of food safety,” said another, referring to an endless series of scandals over the safety of milk and other products in China.

Other users questioned whether the SARFT had adequate means and manpower to apply old-school rules to new media:

This is the era of We Media (自媒体), and SARFT still wants to approve [films] one at a time. Apparently, they’re not afraid of dying of exhaustion.

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