The premiere of an epic Chinese war movie has been cancelled a week before its scheduled release, in what appears to be a new round of tightening of ideological control in the country.
A terse one-sentence statement on the official microblog of the film The Eight Hundred this week announced that the film’s 5 July premiere will be cancelled and “a new release date will be announced later”.
The film had already been pulled the day before its opening-night premiere at the prestigious Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this month, apparently because it glorifies the second world war heroism of the Communists’ rival Nationalist party, according to Chinese-language media reports.
The ruling Nationalist party fought alongside the Communists against Japan during the second world war, but retreated to Taiwan after it lost the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Chinese propaganda emphasises the Communist party’s valiant role in the war against Japan but portrays the Nationalist party as having had a marginal and passive role.
The cancellation of The Eight Hundred came after a group of retired party cadres and conservative figures, including high-ranking former military personnel, lashed out at the movie in a seminar on films on 9 June. Such retired officials still exercise influence over ideological matters.
An article on a Maoist website said the 17 participants at the China Red Culture Research Association seminar unanimously regarded the film as an “inappropriate” tribute to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The film tells the story of how hundreds of Chinese Nationalist soldiers bravely defended a warehouse against Japanese forces for several days to cover Chinese troops retreating west during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937.
While the act of bravery of the so-called “800 heroes” should be remembered, the article quoted the former cadres as saying, the film’s glorification of the Nationalist party’s heroic role was unacceptable.
“The class oppression within the Nationalist army, its officers’ misdeeds and its evil oppression of the people are nowhere to be found [in the film], as if the Nationalist army was the real people’s army,” they said. “[The film] used fragments of history to cover up the reality and embellish the Nationalist’s war efforts.”
They criticised the prominent display of the Nationalist party’s flag in a moving scene where the soldiers defend the flag on the warehouse roof. The film “should not so passionately promote the ‘dignity’ and the ‘sanctity’ of the Nationalist flag … This is an insult to the People’s Republic of China.”
The Communist party rigorously guards its version of history, which it regards as the source of its legitimacy. In a famous speech made in 1942, Mao Zedong stressed the need for art to subordinate itself to politics.
“Literature and art are subordinate to politics and yet in turn exert enormous influence on it,” the future Chinese leader said. “Ideological warfare and literary and artistic warfare, especially if these wars are revolutionary, are necessarily subservient to political warfare.”
President Xi Jinping appears to share Mao’s view of ideological control; in 2013 an internal party edict known as Document No. 9 ordered cadres to tackle seven “subversive” influences on society, including “historical nihilism” – a move that effectively bans any versions of history other than the official one.
“Arts and culture are part of the propaganda and … more and more, literature is at the service of the party especially when it tackles historical subjects,” said Jean-Philippe Beja, research emeritus professor at the Centre for International Studies and Research at Sciences-Po in Paris. “There is no way that through literature, TV or films you can change the historical interpretation by the party.
“The victory over Japan is part of the legitimacy of the Communist party, to talk of the heroism of the Nationalist party is something akin to being a traitor,” he said.
Joseph Cheng, retired political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said the cancellation of the film shows that ideological control is tightening in China and no independent view of history is allowed.
“The Chinese authorities suffer from a sense of insecurity, and in order to be politically safe, new and innovative ideas are not accepted even in the fields of the film industry and the creative arts,” he said.