SARFT and Secrecy: Why Aren’t We Getting Texts?

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About a week ago, SARFT issued a few new rules on television dramas. Historical and revolutionary dramas must clearly demarcate “enemies from ourselves”; dramas cannot unrestrictedly magnify household contradictions; in costume and historical dramas, no comic relief is permitted; the value orientation of commercial dramas must be stressed; remakes and clones of foreign dramas may not be broadcast, and adaptation of Internet stories or Internet games into television dramas is prohibited.

This sounds like what we are used to from SARFT, who banned, among other things, time-travel in television dramas, critical judging in talent shows and ads for athlete’s foot cures (the latter only during dinner-time, however). What is interesting, however, is that the rules aren’t published. Rather, there were some unsubstantiated rumours coming from industry insiders, which were later confirmed by a SARFT official. There is no official document, no announcement on the SARFT website, no authoritative version on which drama makers can rely. Obviously, this is not the first time this happens, and Chinese politics tends to be notoriously secretive. However, up until now, there was a certain level of transparency, as at least regulatory texts would be available most of the times. Some documents would be kept secret, such as Decree no. 17 from 2001, which infamously provided that media outlets are the property of the Party, rather than the State, and a number of documents dating from around the 1989 uprisings. Over the last year, however, it has become a matter of course. The “Decree Limiting Entertainment” was not made public, only an interview with a SARFT spokesperson was published. The same is true for new rules on Internet audiovisual services which came into force in July. Also, not only SARFT is doing this. In May, the Beijing municipal government solicited opinions on new regulations for cultural enterprises, touching amongst others upon investment into and registration of Internet enterprises. Again, the document is not publicly available to the best of my knowledge.

I’m not sure if this is a developing trend or just a coincidence. Obviously, vagueness of the law is desirable for a regime that requires discretion and operating space to enable its intervention. It may also discourage new entrants from the marketplace by raising the regulatory risk, making it easier for the administration to deal with a small number of large – and therefore vulnerable – players. Or perhaps I’m seeing intent where there is none. In any case, it seems to me that if the government explicitly states that it wants to construct a rule-by-law system in the cultural sphere, publicizing the full texts of new regulations is an elementary requirement.


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