AUDIENCES across China have watched an anarchist anti-hero rebel against a totalitarian government and persuade the people to rule themselves, after state television surprisingly aired the film V for Vendetta, taken from the British graphic novel of the same name.
The airing of the film on China Central Television (CCTV) stunned viewers and has raised hopes that the country’s rulers are loosening censorship.
Some commentators and bloggers think it could be CCTV producers pushing the envelope of censorship, or another sign that the ruling Communist Party’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, is serious about reform.
“Oh God, CCTV unexpectedly put out V for Vendetta. I had always believed that film was banned in China!” media commentator Shen Chen wrote on the popular, Twitter-like Sina Weibo service, where he has more than 350,000 followers.
The 2005 film, which differs significantly from the book, is set in an imagined future Britain with a fascist government. The protagonist wears a mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century English rebel who tried to blow up parliament.
The mask has become a revolutionary symbol for young protesters in mostly western countries, and it also has a cult-like status in China as pirated DVDs are widely available. Some people have used the image of the mask as their profile pictures on Chinese social media sites.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia wrote on Twitter, which is not accessible to most Chinese due to government internet controls: “This great film couldn’t be any more appropriate for our current situation. Dictators, prisons, secret police, media control, riots, getting rid of ‘heretics’ … fear, evasion, challenging lies, overcoming fear, resistance, overthrowing tyranny … China’s dictators and its citizens also have this relationship.”
Beijing strictly controls print media, television and radio. Censors also monitor social media sites, including Weibo. TV programmes have to be approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, but CCTV, the only firm with a nationwide broadcasting licence, is said to be entitled to make its own censorship decisions when showing a foreign film.
Liu Shanying, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who used to work for CCTV, said the film might have had approval or it could have been CCTV’s own decision to broadcast it.
“Every media outlet knows there is a ceiling above their head,” said Mr Liu. “Sometimes we will work under the ceiling and avoid touching it. But sometimes we have a few brave ones who want to reach that ceiling and even express their discontent over the censor system.”
He said it was “very possible” that CCTV had decided by itself to broadcast the film. If so, he added, it would have been “due to a gut feeling that China’s film censorship will be loosened or reformed.”
The airing of V for Vendetta raised some hopes about possible changes under Mr Xi, who was publicly named China’s new leader last month.
He has already announced a trimmed-down style of leadership, calling on officials to cut waste and unnecessary meetings and pomp. His reforms are aimed at pleasing a public long frustrated by local corruption.