China this week appears to have blocked access to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com), giving rise to speculation that it is stepping up its war on websites that allow user-generated content.
IMDb is owned by Amazon and is available to its claimed 57 million visitors per month in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese – but not Chinese. That hasn’t stopped the Chinese authorities from apparently blocking the site since last Wednesday, to the dismay of film industry insiders who reckon IMDb is an essential tool for those working at the state-run China Film Group.
Theories abound as to why the site has been blocked: porn and violence are the two usual suspects, as the Chinese authorities have increasingly sought to protect its citizens from the corrupting influence of such subject matter.
The mere fact that IMDb carries listings for films dealing with politically sensitive topics may be enough to have the authorities in a lather. Inserting the phrase "Dalai Lama" into the site search engine will turn up plenty of links to films and other material in respect of a charatcer deemed separatist and dangerous by the Chinese government.
Typing "Kadeer" will also throw up links to "Rebiya Kadeer", a prominent Uighur and alleged mastermind behind recent violence in western China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a listing for China: Rebirth of an Empire, a 2009 documentary which features Kadeer and exiled Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng.
IMDb also carries information on The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom. The planned screening of this 2009 documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival led the China Film Group to pull two of its films from competition in protest.
On the other hand, in a state that actively seeks to protect its citizens from evil foreign influences, it is difficult to know which films and references will excite the censor. Perhaps they are still smarting over The Yangtse Incident, a somewhat gung ho 1950s retelling of an incident when Johnny Bulldog - aboard the HMS Amethyst - single-handedly faced down the evil communist menace.
An alternative and highly plausible theory is that China is becoming increasingly allergic to the web 2.0 revolution – and the way in which user-generated content is able to undermine state control.
So, Facebook was shut in China on July 8 allegedly for disseminating Kadeer’s separatist propaganda. YouTube and Twitter are also on the growing list of forbidden sites.
It's impossible to be sure why IMDb is no longer welcome in China, and the answer is probably a mixture of all of the above. But with Google's volte-face on internet censorship today, the scene is set for internet content in China to become an increasingly heated topic. ®