The Hunger Games Comes to Beijing

BEIJING -- The Hunger Games movie mania may have finally starved in the United States -- but in China it's just beginning.

The film debuted in the box office chart's top spot, bringing in an estimated 66.1 million yuan ($10.4 million) in its first week last month. Its run in the world's second-largest movie market is expected to further add many millions to the more than $650 million dollars already raked in worldwide. But the biggest feat by far is that the film was selected by China's culture czars as one of the handful of Hollywood films allowed to open in China this year.

The movie's content certainly didn't make it a likely candidate. The reason for this isn't only its violence, but also its entire plot, which places protagonist Katniss in opposition to a repressive and dystopian political system. (The debut of the film in nearby Vietnam, for instance, has been "delayed indefinitely.") The Chinese government has been clamping down on violent and racy entertainment, and has shown itself to be extremely sensitive to cultural products that develop political connotations. China's president Hu Jintao even penned a major statement earlier this year that decried "international hostile forces" that use the "cultural field" to "infiltrate ... westernize and divide China."

But even the heavily controlled Chinese film sector can't resist the commercial allure of The Hunger Games' record-breaking profits. When I went to see the movie, tickets cost 70 yuan (about $11) apiece at a swanky theater in Beijing's Chaoyang District, a large sum for the many Chinese families and teenagers on dates who had eagerly filled the theater. The movie's entry into China exemplifies the triumph of market forces and profit motives that has increasingly characterized the country's economy since Deng Xiaoping initiated "reform and opening" in 1978. The Hunger Games is the kind of gripping entertainment that people everywhere love, whether they live under the Chinese Communist Party or Queen Elizabeth II (both recently celebrated their 60th anniversaries in power). And, in this case, the market got what the market wanted, despite the many aspects of the movie that the Chinese government undoubtedly finds unappealing.

The Hunger Games is here despite the fact that critics of the Chinese regime have been quick to try to present the film as a fable with political implications for China. The Epoch Times, an international publication of the Falun Gong sect that has been Public Enemy No. 1 in China for the past two decades, wrote that the film "strikes home in China," quoting several Chinese microbloggers who "saw it as a valid depiction of the current Chinese political situation."

But the release of The Hunger Games in China provides insights into an even more interesting dynamic in China today: the CCP's anxious attempts to address its sense of cultural crisis. In keeping with Hu's essay, state control over culture in China has been getting stricter. For example, reality shows spawned by the saucy dating program If You Are the One, a megahit that the English-language Party organ China Daily called "morally ambiguous and visually electrifying," have been heavily criticized and taken off the air. This trend is the opposite of the market forces that got The Hunger Games into China: China's culture czars have deemed some of China's most popular and profitable shows immoral or politically problematic.

An important reason for this intensification of censorship and control is that the Party increasingly realizes that China has become a society without a stable source of values. The country's tumultuous 20th century history helps to explain this cultural situation. The CCP under Mao first assaulted traditional Confucian values. Then, 30 years later, the CCP understandably turned away from Maoist ideology, instead establishing a system based on the worldly "socialism with Chinese characteristics," propelling China's economic boom and enshrining commercialism and moneymaking. But this has also engendered serious issues that range from widespread corruption to individual unhappiness.

Recognizing this problem, the CCP is searching for alternative approaches to fulfilling what Hu called the "spiritual and cultural needs" of the Chinese people -- without undercutting the Party's political legitimacy and monopoly on power. Indeed, China's leaders have decided that culture is a necessary engine and driver of national progress. "Culture is increasingly becoming an important source of national unity and creativity," Hu Jintao has said, "an important factor in national strength, and an important support for economic and social development." So it makes sense that this all-important "culture" would become an increasingly important terrain of Party enforcement and an instrument for achieving its wide-ranging objectives.

But how can the Party reconcile this attempt to shape culture with the enormous economic benefits of capitalism?

The Hunger Games has already become part of debate over this question. An essay in the Beijing Times warned that the reason for the film's popularity is that it places its audience in the grisly position of the audience at the Games. Just as the government in the movie uses "the packaging of entertainment" to achieve its ends through the titular games, the film reveals young people's "willingness to be manipulated, loss of faith, and lack of love and trust." Even more troublingly, the "terrible" attraction of people to the movie will further allow commercial forces to rise and eventually to "invade people's spiritual lives." The forces pushing against these views speak with their money. In this case, unlike so many others, it appears that the market has won out.

The Hunger Games highlights how high the stakes around answering these questions are for China today, even with regard to the most ordinary forms of entertainment. Despite its autocratic nature, the Chinese government needs to respond, at least partly, to what people want, even if that means allowing movies that deal with uncomfortable themes or don't fall into line with the values that the Party wants to promote. But how far will demand push the Party? Watching China's cultural sphere may be the best way of finding an answer to this question.

It's a game definitely worth watching.