Decriers of Chinese censorship don’t seem to care when the same thing happens in the United States
Fight Club is back in the news. The 1999 film classic recently adopted a new ending, in a rather comical manner similar to that which happened with Lord of War, for an official Chinese release. A brief after-text replaced the original ending, which explains how the police successfully apprehended the perpetrators of the bomb plot with the help of the main character. Western media has been out in full force condemning the move for its assault on free speech. There are a few ironic crinkles to that story though. First of all, this is probably the first time in a decade anyone has referred to the themes of Fight Club positively as free speech that warrants protection on its own merit. Fight Club is notorious for its inspiration of the incel movement, among other deplorable types. Well, the West won this skirmish, as yesterday China restored the original ending.
But ‘Fight Club’ author Chuck Palahnuiuk didn’t write Tyler Durden as a heroic figure. The Fight Club novel underscores the incompetence and boorishness of Durden’s dreams of revolution by having his climactic bomb plot fizzle out, as Durden’s army lacks sufficient competence to actually construct and place functional bombs. Chuck Palahnuik himself called attention to this, as soon as someone could bother to ask him for comment.
Palahnuik gave a tongue-in-cheek defense of Chinese censorship. But his subsequent attempt to call attention to the fact that the United States already censors his to a much wider degree than anywhere else thanks to the national trend of book-banning at libraries, which has been going on a lot longer than a lot of people much want to admit, really stopped the conversation. Never mind the misogynist reading of Fight Club. His novel Choke is all about sex addiction. The recent Adjustment Day reimagines the United States as a balkanized group of states including Caucasia, Blacktopia, and Gaysia. In one short story Palahnuik envisions a brother accidentally getting his sister pregnant through his obsessive masturbation.
Palahnuik’s calling card has always been deliberately dark, disturbing material, filled with broken men (and sometimes women) falling prey to idols of their own obsessive making. The depiction of American culture is, unsurprisingly, a rather negative one. It’s also a depiction that you can’t contradict, even if his opinions about the country’s cultural rot are entirely subjective.
The great irony of the Chinese Fight Club censorship controversy, though, is that it wasn’t intrepid censorship-hating American journalists who noticed it first, but rather Chinese citizens who’d seen the original cut. They were upset that someone had edited the version on the Tencent streaming platform. They may well have been the only people to even try to watch that version. Tencent gaining distribution rights to a 20-year-old cult foreign movie wasn’t exactly a giant media event in China.
But how does anyone in China even know what Fight Club originally looked like if the censorship doesn’t allow for that kind of messaging? Well, the short answer is that no entity undertakes censorship in a unified coherent way. It’s haphazard, and more generally preemptive. People in positions of clear authority generally aren’t issuing directives to change movie endings. This fundamental misunderstanding of how arbitrarily censorship is applied has long led Western commentators to make sweeping generalizations of the kind of media Chinese people consume without regards to material circumstances.
Piracy in China is so rampant, for example, that I can guarantee you that anyone there who wanted to see Marvel’s four superhero movies last year has already done so, despite their not getting theatrical releases in China. You could probably find any one of them on Bilibili right now for free, just because Disney simply isn’t that engaged in bothering to issue takedown notices.
In regards to more artistically defensible movies, the Western press frequently describes Call Me By Your Name as “censored” in China for not receiving theatrical distribution, presumably because it’s a gay love story. Such a description would baffle the many Chinese fans of the movie- it has over 600,000 ratings on Douban, with an average score of 8.9 and a leaderboard rank of #97 . That’s more than twice the 250,000 on IMDB with an average score of only 7.9 and a leaderboard rank of 289. Does this sound like a movie the Chinese government is seriously trying to prevent people from watching?
The hard reality of this censorship is that in regards to any alleged wrongdoing by China in regards to pop culture distribution the United States is very much in a remove-the-splint-from-your-own-eye kind of situation. When pressed to explain the nuts and bolts of how they’re censored, American authors on banned book lists describe a situation not too different than that in China. Anyone who thinks any of this is new simply hasn’t been paying attention.