Why Keanu Reeves Puts Up With Chinese Censorship

Actors and authors are justified in accepting Chinese government cuts of their work. 

Harvard professor Ezra Vogel, whose biography of Deng Xiaoping (pictured here) was published to wide acclaim in 2011, has acquiesced to government cuts in the book's Chinese translation. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Keanu Reeves, 49, is an actor, director, and movie star best known for his starring role in the popular Matrix trilogy. Ezra Vogel, 83, professor emeritus at Harvard, is an acclaimed Sinologist and the author Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, a recent biography of the Chinese leader. Vogel has spent his career writing about important historical figures. Reeves “met” a few of them in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

But recently, the two, separately, found themselves in an eerily similar position: compromising with China's censors over mandated changes to their work. Reeves, who making his directorial debut with The Man of Tai Chi, appeared on the Canadian talk show George Stroumboplis Tonight this week to discuss the challenges of filming in China :

Here's what Reeves said, in conversation with Stroumboplis:

George Stroumboplis: I know guys that made films there, and maybe you didn't have this experience, but making a film in China you had to deal with the government and there was censorship and there was all these other issues. Did you have to go through that process?

Keanu Reeves: Absolutely. They don't have a ratings system in mainland China. So the idea is films have to be able to be seen by all ages. So there's no PG-13 or R or anything like that. And then there's content. Obviously the censorship has content issues.

I had to take down some of the violence. So I had one sequence where the lead punched someone in the head 11 times ... so we made it five. And that was OK. It got the story across ... and then another one was 32 and that went to 17.

( ... )

In the film I have underground fighting. So they didn't want underground fighting in mainland China, in the capital of China. So in Beijing there's no underground fighting. And there's no corrupt police officers. So we had to go to Hong Kong ... because it's OK in Hong Kong."

Reeves' experience is hardly unusual. There's a perception that, with foreign movies, anything goes in China so long as the Communist Party isn't criticized. But this isn't exactly accurate; in fact, Chinese film censors have a long list of content they deem objectionable. According to regulations issued in 2008 by SARFT, the Chinese government body then-responsible for the film industry, the following must be cut or altered from movies shown in the country: distortions of Chinese history, disparaging the image of the army, obscenity, violence, and even promoting a negative outlook on life.

These restrictions are so thorough that the veteran filmmaker Robert Cain, who has made movies in China for over a quarter century, remarked that “nothing bad or subversive ever happens in the modern-day communist utopia that is China. If you want to explore any salacious topics, either set them somewhere else, or in some cases, you can set them in the past.”

For Reeves, the problem was modest—he simply needed to reduce the amount of allowable punches in his fight scene from one arbitrary number to a slightly lower one. For Vogel, though the nature of his work (a biography of one of China's most important leaders) was surely different, some of the cuts were no less trivial-seeming than the ones which affected Reeves. For example, in a section describing Deng's anxiety over the student protests which ultimately led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Vogel describes the leader being so rattled that he let a dumpling drop from his chopstick during a state dinner with Mikhail Gorbachev. This part was cut from the Chinese translation of Vogel's book, as was the revelation that Zhao Ziyang, the former Premier, wept when placed under house arrest. Overall, Vogel estimates, around 10 percent of his book was killed by censors.

Not everyone is as willing to cooperate, however. According to The New York Times, Qiu Xiaolong, a novelist whose books are set in Shanghai, refused to allow his fourth novel to be published in China after censors made significant changes to the first three. And both Hillary Clinton and Alan Greenspan balked at selling censored versions of memoirs to Chinese consumers.

It's worth noting though, that this issue is hardly unique to China. In 1967, The Rolling Stones appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, then the most popular variety television program in the U.S. When the Stones revealed their intent to sing the song “Let's Spend the Night Together,” Sullivan demanded that singer Mick Jagger instead sing “let's spend some time together.” Jagger ultimately complied (though not before rolling his eyes to the audience as he sang the clean version). The Rolling Stones determined, now matter how begrudgingly, that reaching the Ed Sullivan Show's huge audience was more important than preserving the complete integrity of their music.

Ezra Vogel has made a similar calculation. In his comments to the Times, the historian said it was better that 90 percent of his work reach Chinese readers than none, and no wonder—more than 95 percent of his book sales have been in the People's Republic. And that's a fact that people who create content for a living—from the Ezra Vogels to the Keanu Reeveses—cannot ignore: China has an enormous, culturally engaged market for booksellers, musicians, and moviemakers.

To purists, any cut at all is a travesty; a betrayal to a well-honed artistic vision. And the Communist Party's standards for censorship have little rational justification. But considering that, until fairly recently, foreign books and films (of any standard) were basically unavailable to Chinese people, it's hard to argue that Vogel and Reeves would have accomplished much by refusing to compromise with Chinese government requirements.