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26 January 2022

China’s censorship machine sanitises Fight Club

The anarchic original runs counter to the Chinese government’s priorities of order and strong central control.

By Katie Stallard

The first rule of Fight Club in China, it turns out, is that the authorities come out of it looking good.

The original movie ends with Edward Norton’s character killing his imaginary alter ego Tyler, played by Brad Pitt, and then watching a series of explosions destroy the city around him, in what is presumably the culmination of his “Project Mayhem” plot to bring down modern consumerist society.

But that is not how the movie now ends in China. Viewers watching the film on the streaming platform Tencent Video this weekend reported that the dramatic final explosion scene has been replaced by a few lines of text explaining that order and civic duty prevailed instead.

Thanks to a tip from Brad Pitt’s character, viewers are told, “the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding.” According to screenshots posted on the social media platform Weibo, Norton’s character is tried and sent to a “lunatic asylum” for “psychological treatment”, before eventually being discharged and presumably permitted to rejoin society.

This is much more in keeping with the Chinese government’s priorities, which focus on stability, order and the importance of strong central control.

[See also: How China is policing the past to secure its future]

It’s easy to see this as the latest manifestation of China’s strict censorship regime and official overreach, but perhaps the more troubling scenario would be if the government censors turn out not to have ordered the changes after all, and the film was self-censored by the local rights-holder to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market.

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With strict caps on the number of foreign films allowed into the country each year, and China the world’s largest cinema box office for the past two years, there is a powerful incentive for producers to avoid upsetting the Chinese government or venturing into politically sensitive territory.

“It is now commonly accepted that there will be no Chinese villains in any Hollywood film in the years to come since China’s box office is too important,” concluded a report by the free speech advocacy group Pen in 2020. Instead, the trend is for Chinese characters to be depicted saving the day, as in the 2013 movie Gravity, where Sandra Bullock is rescued by a Chinese rocket, or 2016’s Arrival, where Amy Adams appeals to a Chinese general to thwart the alien invasion and save the world.

[See also: Why Hong Kong is culling its hamsters – and how citizens are fighting back]

Sometimes the changes are barely noticeable. A scene was removed from Mission: Impossible III for the Chinese market because it showed “tattered” laundry hanging out to dry on balconies in Shanghai and failed to show the city in a positive light. The Taiwan and Japan flags disappeared from Tom Cruise’s flight jacket in Maverick, the sequel to Top Gun, and the “nine-dash line” that denotes China’s claims in the South China Sea was marked on a map in the children’s animated movie Abominable, attracting criticism outside China. 

Other films undergo more extensive surgery. A study by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission found that the 2012 film Red Dawn had been painstakingly altered in post-production to transform the enemy from Chinese to North Korean soldiers. “With an eye towards distribution in China, American filmmakers increasingly edit films in anticipation of Chinese censors’ many potential sensitivities,” the authors said.

We still don’t know what happened to Fight Club and who decided to change the ending for the Chinese streaming audience. But what is clear is that as Xi Jinping prepares to enter a third term as China’s leader this autumn, and sets out his vision for a comprehensive cultural crackdown – which includes strict controls on video gaming, as well as a ban on representations of same-sex relationships and “effeminate” men – this will not be the last story to be rewritten to conform to the Communist Party’s ideals.

[See also: How China is reclaiming history]

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