Eyebrows raised as CCTV shows famously anti-government, and possibly banned, film V for Vendetta
China's state television network has surprised viewers by airing V for Vendetta, the anti-authoritarian movie in which an anarchist rebel fights a totalitarian government to incite a popular uprising.
After the telecast, China's internet crackled with quotes of a famous catchline from the movie: "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
The airing of the movie stunned viewers and raised hopes that China is loosening censorship.
V for Vendetta never appeared in Chinese theatres, but it is unclear whether it was ever banned. An article on the Communist party's People's Daily website said it was previously prohibited from broadcast but the spokesman for the agency that approves movies said he was not aware of any ban.
Some commentators and bloggers speculated the broadcast could be CCTV producers pushing the envelope of censorship, or another sign that the ruling Communist party's newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, is serious about reform.
"Oh God, CCTV unexpectedly put out V for Vendetta. I had always believed that film was banned in China!" media commentator Shen Chen wrote on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo service, where he has more than 350,000 followers.
Zhang Ming, a supervisor at a real estate company, asked on Weibo: "For the first time CCTV-6 aired V for Vendetta, what to think, is the reform being deepened?"
The 2005 movie, based on a comic book, is set in an imagined future Britain with a fascist government. The protagonist wears a mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century English rebel who tried to blow up parliament. The mask has become a revolutionary symbol for young protesters in mostly western countries, where it has become associated with the hacker movement Anonymous, and it also has a cult-like status in China as pirated DVDs are widely available. Some people have used the image of the mask as their profile pictures on Chinese social media sites.
The Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia wrote on Twitter, which is not accessible to most Chinese because of government internet controls: "This great film couldn't be any more appropriate for our current situation. Dictators, prisons, secret police, media control, riots, getting rid of 'heretics' ... fear, evasion, challenging lies, overcoming fear, resistance, overthrowing tyranny ... China's dictators and its citizens also have this relationship."
China's government strictly controls print media, television and radio. Censors also monitor social media sites including Weibo. Programmes have to be approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, but people with knowledge of the industry say CCTV, the only company with a nationwide broadcast license, is entitled to make its own censorship decisions when showing a foreign movie.
"It is already broadcast. It is no big deal," said a woman who answered the phone at movie channel CCTV-6. "We also didn't anticipate such a big reaction."
The spokesman for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television said he had noticed the online reaction to the broadcast. "I've not heard of any ban on this movie," Wu Baoan said.
The film is available on video-on-demand platforms in China, where movie content also needs to be approved.
A political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who used to work for CCTV said the film might have approval or it could have been CCTV's own decision to broadcast it.
"Every media outlet knows there is a ceiling above their head," said Liu Shanying. "Sometimes we will work under the ceiling and avoid touching it. But sometimes we have a few brave ones who want to reach that ceiling and even express their discontent over the censor system."