Clifford Coonan: Move over Avatar, Confucius is about to hit the screen

Beijing Notebook: The decision to pull Avatar looks like a commercial, not a political decision
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Aside from shivering in the cold in the Northern Capital, a major pastime in Beijing these days is going to the cinema. Not so long ago, going to the cinema meant spending uncomfortable hours in front of a sketchy propaganda flick, but these days there are 4,700 film screens, many of them in plush multiplexes, and China's newly cash-rich youth loves the silver screen.

And they adore nothing more than Avatar, in which an ex-Marine – spoiler alert here if you live on Venus – falls for an appealing indigenous blue-skinned tribe who, quite literally, hug trees. It's the most popular movie ever screened in China. From this weekend, however, Avatar has been pulled to make way for Confucius, a worthy state-backed biopic of the philosopher.

Some Western media said Avatar had to go. It's being read as a rallying call to Tibetan independence-seekers, Uighur separatists, or those angry at being forcibly relocated from their homes to make way for construction projects. This time, however, the decision to pull Avatar looks like a commercial, not a political decision.

The people at the China Film Bureau reminded everyone that it always pulls foreign movies to make way for Chinese films. That is why it has a film quota system, to encourage domestic movies, especially before public holidays such as the Chinese New Year, which is approaching in a couple of weeks.

Other voices in the film business, including patriotic ones, are fully behind Avatar, saying China can learn from its technological prowess, and saying the tale of the dastardly earthlings and the Na'vi people is a parable for evil Western imperialism, or Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion of 1931, or any other David versus Goliath scenario you know. Blue-skinned Pocahontas, anyone? Crucially, Avatar is still allowed in 3D, which is where everyone is going to see it, and when I went to watch it the other day that was the only screening that anyone cared about. The D screenings were empty. If it had been the political message, the movie would never have made it, either in D or 3D.

China post Google

Watching the queue for Avatar tickets in Beijing's hip Sanlitun district is an education in what a changing China looks like. The conversation most often overheard last week in the internet cafés and in tweets, was about Google's threat to pull out of China over cyber-attacks on activists using Gmail accounts and internet censorship. Most lining up to buy tickets for Avatar were depressed at the potential loss of relevance of cool web users in China post-Google