Remember, sex sells in a consumer society

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party is the biggest event in mainland politics since the last one, five years ago. But despite the blanket media coverage on the mainland, the vast majority of the public appear hugely indifferent to its significance.

Instead, they're more preoccupied with making money and finding new ways to spend it. The two go hand in hand: rising incomes are boosting China's buoyant leisure industry.

There are over 600,000 leisure and health, or sports, enterprises on the mainland, according to a report last month from the Health and Recreation Special Council. They generate over 200 billion yuan in annual revenue, as mainlanders increasingly adopt the western habit of spending much of their disposable income on leisure pursuits. That includes everything from foot massages to golf and overseas vacations.

Evidence of the leisure boom was on display during the recent 'golden week' national holiday, an institution much loved by the government for the lift it gives to the economy. Shops were packed and many people headed abroad. A fair few were in Hong Kong looking into buying property or opening stock trading accounts.

As a break from all that commercial activity, many crowded into cinemas to watch the uncut version of director Ang Lee's racy Shanghai-set period drama Lust, Caution, or Se Jie.

But when the movie is officially released on the mainland later this month, it will lack its controversial sex scenes. The Film Bureau, part of the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (Sarft), decided they weren't suitable for audiences, a decision that has angered many.

Most people on the mainland are able to make the distinction between a movie with adult themes and pornography.

But the censors are still guided by a decades-old dictum which states that, if a film isn't suitable for children, then it isn't OK for adults, either. That is as ridiculous as Sarft's current 'no sex' campaign, which has seen TV and radio shows covering sexual issues - as well as adverts for women's underwear - disappear from screens and airwaves in the past two weeks.

Sarft's timing has been noted by disgruntled netizens. Some parody President Hu Jintao's calls for a 'harmonious society', noting how authorities have 'harmonised' the internet.

But cleaning up the media before the congress smacks more of a politically inspired purge than any real desire to improve mainland morality. Nor is censorship the way to prevent children from seeing adult-oriented movies. A film ratings system would do the job, as it does elsewhere. The failure to introduce one hampers the creation of the consumer society that politicians want for the nation.

The Health and Recreation Special Council report claims that if 20 per cent of the population spent 2,000 yuan a year on leisure activities, then the industry would be worth a staggering 600 billion yuan a year. Keeping people out of cinemas is not the way to reach that target.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist