Beijing shows weakness

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 July, 1993, 12:00am

DESPITE all the change in China, at least one constant remains: its sensitivity to criticism. Chen Kaige's acclaimed Farewell To My Concubine has closed in Beijing after one showing; it is to close in Shanghai on August 4; and it will not appear at all in the rest of the country. Yet the suppression of the film for, among other things, its criticism of the Cultural Revolution and its politically incorrect portrayal of a suicide is an over-reaction.


Chen's film would not have started a revolution. It was so innocuous that the authorities originally gave the go-ahead for it to be screened throughout China, despite the anger of some of the country's senior leaders. The initial decision seemed to reflect some broadening of minds in China. That the authorities changed their minds says more about the sensitivity of the Communist Party leadership than it does about the film.


Perhaps those who ordered its suppression thought the smack of firm government would resound through the nation's film studios, restraining others from taking similar liberties. It may give a few producers pause. It will also deprive the nation of the right to see a product of its own cultural creativity. And it confirms the Government's heavy-handed reputation.


If the Chinese Government had any subtlety it would let Chen have his say, perhaps even fete him as a great artist, and thereby take the sting out of his message. Instead it is giving him even greater legitimacy and raising public interest in what he has to say.


That, however, is the Chinese Government's problem. In this context, it has another, more basic difficulty: far from displaying firmness and strength, political censorship shows weakness and insecurity. A government sure of its own legitimacy can take criticism in its stride.