On the evening of Dec. 14, the millions of Chinese who tuned into the China Central Televison (CCTV) movie channel were in for a surprise. Whether by accident or on purpose, the state-run broadcaster had decided to air the decidedly anti-authoritarian 2005 movie V for Vendetta — in which a masked antihero wages a one-man war to bring down a fascist government — which had previously been banned in the country.
To be sure, China is nowhere near as ruthlessly totalitarian as the the fascist Norsefire Party that rules Great Britain in the future dystopia of V for Vendetta. Yet the announcement of the screening led to hundreds of tweets quoting the movie’s most famous line — “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people” — clearly a message that resonates in a country where labor camps still exist and bloggers (and even drunken brawlers) can end up detained for years without trial.
Authorities allow only twenty foreign movies to enter Chinese cinemas every year. V for Vendetta, which touches on controversial topics such as homosexuality and state subversion, wasn’t one of them in 2006, when the movie was released internationally; neither was the cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain, released in the same year. While the grip of China’s censors is gradually loosening, just last year the state administration that issues television and cinema permits bizarrely banned productions featuring time travel.
“It is very possible that CCTV decided by itself” to air the movie, Liu Shanying, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Associated Press — possibly “due to a gut feeling that China’s film censorship will be loosened or reformed.” China is undergoing its once-in-a-decade leadership transition and many look for hints for reform as a sign of a more liberal regime under the new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.
Despite the government oversight it normally operates under, the national broadcaster has had its bold moments. In 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, it aired River Elegy, a controversial documentary that sparked heated debates about the future of the China’s political system and inspired calls for liberal reforms. Today, however the controversy created by V for Vendetta is, at most, muted: for years, the movie has been widely available in China online and on pirated DVD.