China’s new television rules ban homosexuality, drinking, and vengeance

Anything good on?
Anything good on?
Image: Reuters/David Lee
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This article was updated with information about new online rules.

In the past decade, Chinese society has embraced homosexuality more openly than many neighboring nations in Asia. But a new set of rules from a subdivision of SARFT, one of the main media censorship bodies, go in the other direction. If upheld, Chinese producers  can no longer make television shows depicting ”abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior” including “homosexuality” or “perversion.”

That’s not all. The new rules also ban shows that depict smoking, drinking, adultery, sexual freedom or reincarnation, among many other activities.

China’s “General Rules for Television Series Content Production” were first reported by Chinese media on Mar. 2, after being made public by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) at an annual meeting of China’s television producers on Feb. 27. Li Jingsheng, head of SARFT’s TV series unit, told the meeting that online dramas will have the same restrictions, and staff censors will supervise online content around the clock.

The rules are an update of ones issued in 2010 (link in Chinese) by SARFT, but with far more detail, and mark the first time that Beijing has issued specific bans on many themes.

The rules have been drafted in order to ”thoroughly implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech at the national forum on literature,” to promote China’s TV industry, and to help TV series producers to avoid risks during production, the introduction says. In 2014, Xi made a landmark speech encouraging socialist artwork, where he stressed the art must serve a social purpose.

Television production companies should “earnestly follow the regulations in the general rules, actively produce the content promoted by the general rules, and must not produce any content that is banned by the general rules.”

Article five of the rule spells out which “specific content must not appear in television series,” and includes a lengthy list of banned content:

  • Does not meet the national conditions and social systems, to the detriment of national image, endangers national unity and social stability:
  1. Damages the image of the country, state systems and policies.
  2. Damages the image of army, police, national security forces, judicial officers and other specific professions, groups, and public. figures of other social organizations and group.
  3. Exaggerates social problems, displays excess, or shows the dark side of society.
  4. Belittles the role of people in promoting [China’s] historical development.
  5. Sets a negative character as a main character, or exaggerates the positive sides of a reactionary, backwards, evil, or illegal [acting] person, society, or organization.
  6. Promotes feudal dynasties’ conquests in other countries in Chinese history.
  7. Promotes colonialism in dialogue, cinematography, or titles.
  8. Breaks with national sentiment, lacks a foundation in basic living, or promotes an luxurious lifestyle
  • Damages ethnic groups unification:
  1. Plots, line, titles, characters, shots, or music that hurt the feelings of ethnic groups
  2. Exaggerates, vilifies, or insults unique ethnic customs and religious beliefs
  3. Shows ethnic wars or historic incidents that hurt the feelings of ethnic groups
  4. Shows the history of inter-ethnic conquests as wars between nations
  • Violates the state policies on religion:
  1. Promotes religious extremism and cults
  2. Inappropriately compares the merits among different religions or sects [in a way that might imply] inter-religious or sectarian conflicts and contradictions
  3. Excessively displays and promote religious doctrines, canons, or rituals
  4. Mocks or ridicules religious doctrine
  • Promotes feudal superstitions contrary to science
  1. Promotes spirits, reincarnation, witchcraft and other feudal superstitious thinking
  2. Promotes ignorance, evil, grotesque, and other aspects of the feudal culture
  • Exaggerates terrorist violence, or shows ugly behaviors that potentially induce crime
  1. Displays violence, murder, or shows rampant evil forces
  2. Shows violent and cruel criminal processes, and physical or mental abuse in details
  3. Exposes investigative techniques, details detection that can induce criminals to master anti-investigative techniques
  4. Shows bizarre, grotesque criminal cases
  5. Blurs the value judgement between truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or confuses the basic boundaries between justice and injustice
  6. Show drugs, alcoholism, gambling and other bad behaviors in detail
  7. Contains shots, lines, music, or sound effects that include excessive horror, physical pain, or hysteria which can result in a strong sensory, mental stimulation causing physical and psychological discomfort
  8. Promotes the use of violence against violence, and shows extreme vengeance
  • Contains pornographic or vulgar content
  1. Depicts prostitution, fornication, rape and other ugly behaviors
  2. Expresses or displays abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior, such as incest, homosexuality, perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual violence.
  3. Promotes unhealthy views of marriage and relationships, including extra-marital affairs, one night stands, and sexual freedom.
  4. Contains shots that give sensory stimulus, and similar manifestations and indirectly related to or suggestive of sex
  5. Contains shots, lines, music and sound effects that are obvious allusions to sexual advances, sexual harassment, sexual humiliation.
  6. Exposes of male and female sexual organs and other hidden parts, or contain sexually suggestive clothing
  7. Uses vulgar language
  8. Contains sex-related images, lines, music, sound effects that are not suitable for minors
  • Distorts ethnic cultural traditions
  1. Exaggerates ethnic or social aspects that are lagging behind
  2. Contradicts basic historical facts to “reverse a verdict”‘ for the historical figures or historical events which have been settled, or [attempts to] “rectify the name” of controversial historical figures or historical events.
  3. Tampers with classic works of art, or distorts their original spirit
  4. Contradicts basic knowledge of history, lacks historical basis, or distorts history
  5. Depicts history, especially revolutionary history, as leisure or a game
  • Harms public morality, adversely affects minors
  1. Displays love between a young people, smoking and drinking, fighting, and other unhealthy behavior
  2. Contains smoking scenes that violate regulations of State Council’s administrative department on broadcast and films
  3. Contains costumes that would have a negative influence on minors
  4. Contains other uncivilized behavior that contradicts to public morality

Nearly everything in the new rules was not included in the original 2010 rules issued directly from SARFT, except for the ban on content that harms China’s national image, unity and social stability, or is pornographic or induces crimes. SARFT has published similar guidances before for online video, but not for broadcast television. And none of them specifically singled out homosexuality.

The rules are part of a concerted crackdown on what China’s state media can show, and formalize attempt to scrub depictions of homosexuality from entertainment around the country. Just last week, a gay-themed web series called “Addiction” was abruptly scrubbed from China’s video streaming sites. In January, a viral internet hit about bisexuality was taken offline. And in September 2015, a documentary about young gay Chinese called Mama Rainbow mysteriously disappeared from the web.

While they were publicized by SARFT, they were issued by the China Television Drama Production Industry Association, a 400 member group that produces 90% of China’s television content, and the China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television, a self-described civil society group. If enforced as written the rules would force many of China’s most popular shows off the air.

Extra-marital, reincarnation, and criminal activities are popular Chinese TV dramas, as they are everywhere. Some Chinese television viewers joked on Weibo (link in Chinese) the new rules would even ban the adaptation of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels,” considered to be the best novels in Chinese literature, which already appeared on television in the 1980s. In The Water Margin, for example, the hero brutally kills his brother’s wife and her lover, for revenge.

If the new rules are enforced, Chinese television viewers may be left with nothing interesting to watch.