China wants soft power. But censorship is stifling its film industry

"The Wandering Earth" is a Chinese sci-fi film released on the New Year holiday which has taken the country by storm.

Beijing (CNN)Beijing-based film director Huang Han has had one of the worst weeks of his life, courtesy of the Chinese government's strict censors.

He says his independent, low-budget romance flick, set for an online domestic release in 2019, has been hit by an insoluble problem: how to show the male protagonist smoking without giving the cigarette screen time.
It might seem like a bizarre problem but a crackdown on "excessive smoking scenes" is just one of a growing number of restrictions imposed by the Chinese Communist Party on the country's film and television industry.
    "The government's inspection of films has been getting stricter," says Huang, 30, who spoke under a pseudonym to avoid damaging his career. "Only the really famous directors might get a pass. All the rest of us have to follow strict protocol."
      In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for a stronger national effort to boost China's global popularity in proportion to its economic rise. "We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China's message to the world," he said.
      Last month, China had an unexpected win in this arena, after Netflix announced that it would stream Chinese sci-fi blockbuster "The Wandering Earth," which grossed nearly $700 million at the global box office, in more than 190 countries.
      But that's a rare case of a Chinese hit at home making it abroad.
        Unless the Communist Party relaxes its censorship of domestic films, experts say Beijing's dreams of wielding Chinese soft power globally through its film industry could stall.
        Matthias Niedenführ, media specialist at the University of Tubingen's China Center, says a top-down government-dictated approach is unlikely to produce popular international hits.
        "French film, Korean TV and Japanese anime are all creative products that are the result of a creative environment and bottom-up processes," he says. "The irony is that China desperately wants international recognition."

        Hip-hop, tattoos and blurred ears

        The steady encroachment of censorship has been sapping Chinese filmmakers' creativity for years.
        Western lifestyles, cleavage, homosexuality and time travel were strongly discouraged in guidelines laid out in 2016. Then in January 2018, China's censorship bureau, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), launched an attack on the country's burgeoning sub-cultures.
        In a directive, all state broadcasters were banned from employing any performers who promoted "decadent culture," and the portrayal of hip-hop and tattoos was strongly condemned.
        In January 2019, Chinese regulators appeared to begin blurring the ears of men who were wearing earrings.
        Huang says these restrictions have stifled a range of genres that were previously guaranteed money-makers, such as Japanese-style horror movies, his own specialty.
        "Superstitions are not well received during inspection (of a film). An unofficial rule is that ghosts are only allowed to appear if a character is dreaming," he says.
        "Censors now expect films to have a strong educational component, that can provide positive energy for young Chinese."
        "Positive energy" is a catch-all term, commonly used by Chinese politicians and state media, to encourage an optimistic, pro-government attitude in the country's films and television programs.
        Film directors seem to be listening -- and falling in line with the government can be lucrative.
        China's highest-grossing movie in 2018 was "Operation Red Sea," which made $5.7 billion at the domestic box office and told the story of a Chinese naval unit's glorious rescue mission off the coast of Africa.

        Soft power at home ... but not away

        While Chinese films are popular with domestic audiences, so are movies from Hollywood.
        For three weeks in January, "Bumblebee" -- part of the Transformers franchise -- topped the country's box office. In February, the American movie "Alita: Battle Angel" was extremely popular, while this month "Captain Marvel" has been a hit with audiences.
        The US film industry is successful in China -- likely to become the world's largest cinema market in coming years, according to industry insiders -- even though regulators only allow a limited number of foreign films to be screened each year.
        China has not enjoyed the same success in Western markets. Italian film director Gianluigi Perrone says that is because while Hollywood films often also carry a patriotic message, it is done with greater subtlety.