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Censors lay down the law in China

After banning their hottest film star, Chinese publish list of what is not allowed on screen. By Clifford Coonan

In a move unusual for its frankness, China's film censors have quietly released their private list of what is not acceptable on screen. And it is not a short one.

It emerged soon after the blacklisting of Tang Wei, the country's hottest rising star, whose performance electrified Ang Lee's Golden Lion-winning erotic thriller Lust, Caution. In response to the fuss, China's top regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), released on its website a detailed list of censorship criteria.

As so often, the index of censors' dislikes provides a fascinating insight into the dark desires of the general populace. China is a deeply formal society, reserved, even prudish, on matters sexual, although growing openness in society has led to greater permissiveness. Directors must not produce films that depict hardcore sexual activity, rape, prostitution or nudity. "Vulgar dialogue or music and sound effects with a sexual connotation" are also out.

Any content involving "murder, violence, horror, evil spirits and devils and excessively terrifying scenes, conversations, background music and sound effects" is banned. The list forbids films that "distort the civilisation and history of China or other nations ... or ... tarnish the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes, important historic characters, members of the armed forces, police and judicial bodies."

Other banned subjects include the reconstruction of crimes or films that reveal police investigatory techniques. Movies that advocate nihilism, environmental damage, animal abuse and the capture or killing of rare animals will also be on the censor's list.

Tight censorship of films, newspapers, books and magazines is one of the ways the Communist Party in China maintains its grip on power. But there was general bafflement about Tang's blacklisting and no explanation – all she knew was that a multi-million-yuan cold cream advertisement she had starred in had been pulled. Other actors wonder why the Taiwanese director Ang Lee didn't get punished, but as an adviser to the Olympic Games he is too high profile to be censured, particularly so soon after Steven Spielberg quit over China's role in Darfur.

SARFT says that its rules are aimed at "purifying screen entertainment" and "creating a more harmonious and green film environment for the public, especially children".

China's censorship system is rigorous but opaque, and while many of the categories are already an open secret, it is unusual to see the criteria spelt out so publicly. It is significant that the list was made available as China's political leaders were gathered in Beijing for the country's annual parliament, the National People's Congress.

Most Chinese movies that British audiences see are banned in China – even directors such as Zhang Yimou, who is orchestrating the opening ceremony of the Beijing games, spent years in the wilderness on the wrong side of the censor, until he started making more nationalistic fare such as Hero.

Film directors in China often complain that they do not know why their films are banned. Censorship councils are composed of people from all walks of life, and often a film can be banned over something that offends a local representative of a farming organisation from some remote province who has been appointed to watch the movie. The rules were changed a few years ago so that a film-maker could submit the script of a film for approval before shooting, rather than wait until later to be banned, but even if censors pass the script, it is no guarantee that the final picture will make the grade.

Many people in the business in China want a film classification system, something that is currently lacking. This way, children would be forbidden from seeing the raunchy Lust, Caution but adults could still watch grown-up films. However, even that limited form of self-regulation is unlikely anytime soon – a film industry executive said bringing in a film classification system in China would be like "legalising pornography".