Promotional poster for “The Fight,” a drama recently released through Tencent Films.

Under China’s censorship rules for film production, film projects must undergo three stages of approval. First comes application for project establishment, including the important process of greenlighting the script. Next up are production-related approvals – shooting locations, film title and so on. The final and most important stage is to obtain the film’s public screening license (公映许可证), the coveted “Dragon Label,” or longbiao (龙标), which means the film has undergone review and can be released in theaters.

In recent years, online drama films (网络剧片), though a booming market through streaming platforms, have been subject to content controls. But they have not been subjected to the same rigid system of approvals box office feature films must endure in order to be mainstreamed, meeting the Chinese Communist Party’s political expectations for the broader market.

That is now changing.

Beginning today, June 1, 2022, a new system of administrative licensing (行政许可) will be implemented for online drama films, which will now have their own version of the coveted “Dragon Label” – the “Online Label,” or wangbiao (网标). The label, which will be issued by the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), will be the new distribution licensing standard for online dramas, ensuring that the political prerogatives of the CCP are considered and implemented at every stage of production and distribution.

In coverage of the new rules, state media emphasized the move by regulators as being about quality. But questions of quality were clearly intermixed, and often confused, with questions of political restraint.

In a report by Guangming Daily, published by the Central Propaganda Department, Yang Hongtao (杨洪涛), a professor at the Communication University of China, suggested the label would rein in the volume of productions so that “blind development” would become a thing of the past. “At a time when competition in the film and television industry is fierce,” he said, “online audiovisual [content] can only secure a bright future if there is a firm sense of artistry, a reduction in the total volume of production, and improvement in quality and subject matter.”

Deng Boren (邓博仁), the vice-president of the Bilibili streaming platform, told the paper that the “Online Label” would be a major step toward greater quality. “The ‘Online Label’ will lay down a firmer foundation for quality upgrades and high-quality development in the audio-visual industry,” he was quoted as saying.

But the newspaper also indicated clearly that the new label would “mean higher standards and tighter control” (更高标准更严把关).

An article posted on the WeChat public account of Minsheng Weekly, a magazine published by the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, said “many industry insiders believe” that the fact that online dramas must now apply for distribution licenses is “a step forward” in terms of improving the legal regime for audio-visual content, ensuring “the same standard online and offline.” This was a clear reference to ensuring the uniformity of political standards as applied for box office versus online films, the primary consideration being what the CCP has for more than three decades referred to as “correct guidance of public opinion” – or the need to enforce controls on media in order to maintain political control.

The newly introduced “Online Label” for streaming dramas (at top) and the traditional “Dragon Label” for box office films (below).

In a report on the new “Online Label” last week, Xinmin Weekly wrote that the consensus among government regulators and industry insiders – who of course have little to say in this political matter – was that there has been “an urgent need for major change” for online drama films, which should have “content as the king, and guidance as the soul” (内容为王, 导向为魂). In other words, dramas should pursue high production values and audience appeal, but must also consider and advance the political values of the CCP.

The online drama film “The Fight” (对决), released on May 10 by Tencent Video, was the first drama on record to carry the new “Online Label.”

CMP Staff

The China Media Project

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