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Stars protest over bid to block film

Peking - Paul Newman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee and 38 other Hollywood celebrities have sent a letter to China's government criticizing it for trying to block a film about the Dalai Lama and other productions.

Chinese film officials recently made it clear to the Walt Disney Company they opposed plans to distribute Kundun, a new film about the Dalai Lama. China condemns the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, claiming that he is fomenting an independence movement.

China's objections were seen as a veiled threat that Peking would block Disney's plans to expand in the Chinese market if the company did not scrap the film. Last month, Disney said it would honour its agreement to distribute the film.

In a letter to the Chinese ambassador in Washington, 41 Hollywood celebrities condem-ned the Chinese government's efforts to dictate what kinds of film projects can be made in or about China. What China finds objectionable in Kundun, the letter said, is a portrayal of Tibet at odds with the official Chinese view. China often objects to outside criticism it sees as interference in its internal affairs.

"The interference that concerns us," the letter said, "is your government's attempt to impose worldwide censorship on any artistic production that does not meet with official approval."

A government spokesman, Shen Guofang, said yesterday:"The Chinese government and Chinese officials have never put any kind of pressure on Disney. In China, there is no system of film censorship. China produces many films every year without any censorship problems."

The letter listed a dozen recent moves by the Chinese government to ban films or prevent film-makers from working. China prevented Stone from making a movie in China about Mao Tse-tung in 1993 and banned the Academy Award-winning Chinese film Farewell, My Concubine in 1994 until substantial cuts were made. China's efforts to restrict the film world's right of freedom of expression was "wholly unacceptable", it said.

The directors and actors said they wanted good relations with Chinese colleagues and the government, "but respect for freedom of expression must underpin those ties". The letter was released by Human Rights Watch- Asia.