The geopolitics of a film banned – Aaron Mc Nicholas
In early 1981, a virulent anti-communist film produced in Kuomintang-controlled Taiwan passed inspection by Hong Kong’s film censors for public screenings in the city. In reaching their decision, the censors reasoned that the film covered the Cultural Revolution, which was an historical episode “now condemned as much in China as elsewhere” and the film avoided direct criticism of past or present Chinese leaders. Therefore, there were not sufficient grounds to block the film being shown in Hong Kong.
Such a decision would have been unthinkable for much of Hong Kong’s colonial history. As much as the current generation of Hong Kongers discusses the effect of measures such as the National Anthem Law on freedom of expression, the city’s creative space has never been able to escape geopolitical constraints when it comes to sensitive topics. And there was no doubt that The Coldest Winter in Peking was a piece of political propaganda, produced by Taiwan’s government-run film studio with the aim of painting an unflattering picture of life on the mainland under the Communist bandits.
The decision to allow the film would soon be reversed. Li Jusheng, deputy director of Xinhua News Agency’s Hong Kong office, met with future governor David Wilson bearing an edict from Beijing. According to British archival documents uncovered by the Decoding Hong Kong History project, Li advised that the decision to allow the film to be screened in Hong Kong was viewed as an “extremely unfriendly act” and conveyed a request from his superiors that future screenings be halted. Li went one step further to declare that continuing to screen the film would damage Sino-British relations at a time when Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington was due to travel to Beijing to discuss the Hong Kong question.
Wilson, then a political advisor to Governor Murray MacLehose, was a little bemused by the strength of the Chinese objections. After all, the Cold War divide in Hong Kong between the KMT and the Communist Party had swung irreversibly in favor of the latter by this time, so Beijing’s cause for concern was surely minimal. However, the meeting between Lord Carrington and Deng Xiaoping in April 1981 was viewed as significant, as it was the first time that a senior British official would meet with China’s top leader with the intention of raising the issue of the city’s future. Several lower level meetings in the previous two years had failed in their aim of helping the British understand how their Chinese counterparts viewed the Hong Kong question. There was no appetite for the disagreement over The Coldest Winter in Peking to develop into a full-blown diplomatic crisis, so the decision to allow the film was quickly reversed only one day after its release.
In deciding to allow the film, the colonial government’s film censors had perhaps considered the fact that Mao Zedong only appears as an abstract character, the distant, divine figure that is frequently mentioned in dialogue by his loyal Red Guards, but never actually appearing in physical form. Nothing in the film betrays his motivations in launching the Cultural Revolution, hence making it possible for the viewer to judge this period of Chinese history without a direct judgment of the leader himself.
If such a view did indeed prove convincing, it does not stand up to scrutiny after viewing the film with the benefit of hindsight. The Coldest Winter in Peking strikes at nothing less than the capacity of the Communist Party to allow Chinese citizens to be Chinese, as the most important Confucian moral, filial piety, is torn asunder in an agonizing depiction of young Red Guards deliriously abandoning family loyalties to serve the Chairman.
The Cultural Revolution-era attacks on Confucianism remained an open wound in the early 1980s, and to rub further salt into this wound, the main character, who is armed with the morals to understand the chaos unfolding around him, has just returned from studying in the United Kingdom, undoubtedly influenced by counterrevolutionary Western ideas. A particularly vivid moment occurs when the protagonist returns from a hospital visit with his mother, who had earlier been shot by her younger son. He delivers this news to his father, whose facial reaction to the breakdown of his family is obscured by the absence of a simple modern convenience, a reliable household lightbulb. It is a brief moment of quality cinematography which highlights the central message the film had delivered in its opening credits: fight against the Communist regime, because life under its system is unbearable.
The film’s zealousness in promoting this message doesn’t make it impossible for longer moments of quality cinematography to emerge, most notably a long shot of the sent-down youth, who were displaced to the countryside in huge numbers during this period. But any film with an objective that necessitates a descent into state-approved, propagandistic tropes is unlikely to create a sensation among viewers without the support of compelling characters. This may go some way to explain why Lord Carrington was advised to convey to his counterparts in Beijing, should the topic come up in their discussions, that the request to ban the film had been heeded, but he was a little surprised that “China should bother over such pin-pricks from the fading force of the Kuomintang.”
Hong Kong’s film censors had overlooked the fact that China’s opening-up under Deng Xiaoping had also triggered a renewed charm offensive towards overseas Chinese, including those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 1978, Deng first proposed that historical problems be solved by considering the broad outlines, rather than going into every detail. Two years later, Deng further elaborated on this point by explaining that “the purpose of summing up the past is to encourage people to close ranks and look to the future.” It was clear that the Communist Party’s self-assumed role in defining what it meant to be Chinese had not changed.
If the British failed to take this seriously, the KMT were under no such illusions. The Coldest Winter in Peking was actually the first of a series of films released by the Central Motion Pictures Corporation during this decade which aimed at countering the Communist Party’s renewed united front strategy. As the corporation’s then-general manager Ming Ji admitted in a 2001 interview, this counter-strategy proceeded despite “stereotypical impressions of anti-communist films” that had existed in Taiwan. Ming described the film’s banning in Hong Kong to be akin to a “bomb exploding in his heart” because of the city’s importance to the KMT as a political battlefield. But he also acknowledged the positive effect the ban had on the film’s publicity among overseas Chinese, who otherwise may never have heard tell of it.
At the time, Xinhua News Agency’s Hong Kong office had, not incorrectly, pointed out that allowing the film went against Hong Kong’s longstanding acquiescence to political censorship. Most ironically, the stipulation that film censors followed when faced with such a scenario – banning a film when it is likely to damage “good relations with other territories” – was only given legal authority much later, when the Film Censorship Ordinance was passed by the Legislative Council in 1988. It was a short-lived legitimacy that ended when the stipulation was repealed a mere six years later under Governor Chris Patten. For a city that prides itself on the rule of law, political censorship in Hong Kong’s film industry has always kept some distinctly Chinese characteristics. ∎