Banned in Beijing: China shutters film festival just before opening night

The director of the annual Beijing Independent Film Festival was jailed and forced to promise not to open the festival. The move comes as social media, arts, and religion are increasingly restricted. 

Ng Han Guan/AP
Li Xianting, a film critic and founder of the Li Xianting Film Fund, the organizer of the Beijing Independent Film Festival speaks to journalists near the festival's artistic director, Wang Hongwei, after they were released by the authorities in Beijing, China, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Chinese authorities blocked an annual independent film festival from opening Saturday, seizing documents and films from organizers and hauling away two event officials in a sign that Beijing is stepping up its already tight ideological controls.

The closing of an independent film festival on the outskirts of Beijing before it ever opened adds to an intensified campaign in China against activity not considered in line with orthodox party thinking under President Xi Jinping. The broadening range of targets including legal aid, social media, arts, civil society, and Christian churches.

Organizers were to open the 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival on Saturday in Songzhuang, a Beijing suburb. The event is considered by artists to be one few chances to see new avant-garde work created outside government controls.

But Chinese directors, filmmakers, and journalists were blocked from entering the area by squads of non-uniformed men who said they were from out of town.

Festival organizer Li Xianting, a film critic who runs an arts foundation, was put in jail Friday and forced to sign a statement not to open the festival as a condition of being released.

Authorities rescinded an earlier agreement to relocate the event at a hotel in nearby Hubei province, Mr. Li later said. Police detained two artists associated with Li, and confiscated the new films. They also entered the Li Xianting Film Fund office and confiscated the library of 1,500 films collected from the previous 10 festivals.

The festival program lists a frank new documentary by Hu Jie on the taboo subject of China’s Great Famine in the late 1950s to be shown on the last day, Aug. 31, for the first time in mainland China. 

The festival has operated of late with some duress and official displeasure. Partway through the 2012 festival the power was cut. (This year’s festival advertising poster featured a photo of a large home power generator.)

Recent crackdowns in a broad range of areas have come thick and fast and created a new dynamic of worry and concern in the minds of many Chinese – even as President Xi’s full tilt anticorruption campaign, and a more assertive policy abroad vis-à-vis Japan, has been popular with a wealthier middle class.

China watchers say that the small space on the margins of what is called civil society for independent thinking is being systematically ruled out.

“When it comes to ‘causes,’ things like gatherings, political, and civil reform, there was little room, and now there is nearly none,” says a long time Beijing watcher. “The new order is: Anything that challenges Xi’s reform agenda, which is an old-school party line, will be dealt with harshly.”

Mr. Hu, whose documentary premiered in Hong Kong in late July and will show again there Aug. 26, told the Monitor by phone about the festival ban: 

"This year’s films represented a rich variety coming from all over China and overseas, and the festival is very well organized. It is good for the cultural construction of China. So it is unreasonable to eradicate the whole thing, especially we are in a society where we talk about rule of law."

Broader crackdown 

Over the years, as the Communist Party relies on authoritarian measures to deal with greater demands for free expression, there have been clear seasons of opening and closing – and civil society groups hope the current campaign will soon run its course.

Yet the current season is also being described here as different in kind. Xi is pushing a harder line across many sectors of society, and the ongoing massive anticorruption campaign is often interpreted as a soft purge of a wide range of officials accused of excessive misbehavior.

As part of the Xi campaign, China has rolled up most of the small clusters of lawyers that petition for political or constitutional rights inside the country, either putting them in detention or jail. It has also virtually ended the interaction of lawyers working on human rights, sources say.

Authorities have also blocked Facebook, YouTube, Google; arrested or detained many bloggers; and have increasingly censored the Chinese alternative to social media, called Weibo.

Since February, especially in Zhejiang Province, authorities have harassed Christian “home churches,” and for the first time have begun to confront official Protestant churches, called “Three-Self Patriotic” churches. The crosses of nearly 200 official churches in Zhejiang, especially around the city of Wenzhou, have been forcibly removed – causing anger and a feeling of helplessness among adherents. The area is one of significant growth in Christianity, with an estimated 1.2 million Christians in Wenzhou alone.

Police in Beijing have also been showing up at private parties and social events, arresting a number of individuals for drug use – marijuana and cocaine – including the children of prominent officials, celebrities, and businessmen, including last week the son of Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan.

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