China's decision not to release the US film Memoirs of a Geisha serves as a reminder that the country continues to censor despite free-market reforms and increased openness.
Analysts and industry experts say the communist government is likely to maintain ideological control.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, the distributor for Memoirs of a Geisha, said this week that Chinese censors rejected the film, which stars two of China's leading actresses -- Zhang Ziyi (
China has yet to explain the decision, but there's speculation the government feared the film may whip up more anti-Japanese sentiment and hurt Sino-Japanese relations.
Many Chinese are still pained by Japanese atrocities in China during World War II, and they view Zhang and Gong's roles as an insult to national pride.
Geisha isn't the first Hollywood production that China has frowned upon. One frequent area of contention is unflattering portrayals of China's rule of Tibet in movies like Martin Scorsese's Kundun, and Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt.
Many of China's prominent filmmakers have run afoul of censors at some stage in their career.
Jiang Wen's (
Zhang Yimou's (
Tian Zhuangzhuang (
Domestic films face even closer scrutiny than imports.
While foreign movies must be screened by censors, domestic and co-productions must submit their plots, besides the final product, to China's Film Bureau for approval.
China's censors take cues from the Chinese Communist Party's powerful Central Propaganda Department, which sets the ideological agenda for the country and keeps news and media content in check.
Political scientist James Sung (宋立功) of the City University of Hong Kong said the department is sensitive to criticism of the party, especially leaders like Mao Zedong (
Sung expects China's rulers to tighten, not loosen their grip precisely because they are opening up the country's economy, a move that also lets in Western and other foreign cultural imports that may contradict the Chinese government's message.
On top of censorship, China has also set an annual import quota of about 20 foreign films.
Beijing-based media consultant Wang Ran (
Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (