Approved or not approved -- that is the question in China

Approved, or Not Approved — that is the question in China.

The procedures of getting government approval for foreign shows and artists are very complicated. The system of approval sets obstacles to producers/promoters, rather than encouraging them to explore the market. Promoters, vendors and most importantly, ticket buyers often are worried that the international show will go down the toilet due to government regulation (or changing re-regulations overnight), or the producers/promoters won’t have enough time to get a return on their investment due to the unique Chinese conditions of state controlled media, promotion and censorship and cancel. With all these concerns, attracting high level sponsors on very short lead times is additionally an ongoing challenge.

The concept of Chinese promoters of international entertainment is also relatively new and immature.  World tours of international stars and shows have high requirements on production, local accommodation conditions and audience satisfaction, which China has consistently failed to adequately meet in the past.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Western artists including Paul Simon, John Denver and Bjork toured China, but none achieved commercial success. In fact, Bjork was censored and banned for life from returning to China. Later many more were banned including Miley Cyrus, Guns N’ Roses, Jay Z, Lady Gaga etc.. etc…

But even with major artists and high branded shows permitted to enter China, Government censorship and approval controls and limits what is specifically shown. For example, the Rolling Stones couldn’t play “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or “Brown Sugar“.

Even today, access for live entertainment to tour within China is heavily restricted through punitive regulations and accompanying, ever-changing and almost impossible-to-please bureaucracy.

Chinese Piwen Performance LicenseChina’s approval process for live shows, which requires obtaining a license called the “piwen,” hampers the ability for 1st class production by delaying the ability to market and sell shows.

The piwen is issued by the Ministry of Culture largely to:

  1. Approve the show via censorship review, and to;
  2. Allow a show (including its sets, costumes, props and other physical production freight) to enter China, and to;
  3. Allow the people associated with the piwen (aka, the actors, singers, dancers, technicians) approval to apply for visas at the foreign Chinese Embassy or Consulate, and to;
  4. Permit the local Chinese company to engage in contract discussions for theatre venue bookings and promoting the show.

Piwen approval requires submitting information that is not typically easily available. While the list is variable based on the type of show, timing, and who is processing, some of the items generally required, include:

  • Copy of the complete script in performance language (and translated verbatim to Mandarin);
  • Copy of the complete lyrics for every song in performance language (and translated verbatim to Mandarin);
  • Summary of the synopsis of the show (in Mandarin)
  • Full video of the show in its entirety;
  • Full audio of the show in its entirety;
  • Biographies of every person likely to be required to come into China (typically the cast, producers, creative team and technicians);
  • Citizenships, full legal names, dates of birth and passport numbers of every person likely to be required to come into China (passports additionally require a minimum validity of 6 months and 14 days beyond the anticipated final performance day in China;
  • Social media accounts such as facebook, instagram, twitter and youtube of all traveling staff;
  • List of all cities, presenters, theatres and dates intended to perform;
  • Name and business license of Chinese corporation leading the application.

Before a piwen is approved, contracts are not permitted to be signed and ticket sales cannot be advertised or marketed which obviously greatly limits opportunities.

As a result, the successful theatrical management strategy of selling shows as a package or subscription completely disappears, and chances to acquire corporate sponsorships that require planning long lead times, and generally in the following fiscal year are diminished.

Compounding the current roadblocks to effective event management, changing and inconsistent visa applications and approval for members of performing companies create risk of event disruptions and delays.

Equally imposing rules for Chinese border customs bonding and trucking logistics on event materials add to the complexity and disjointed timeline for execution with unpredictable outcomes and quality.

China maintains a system of city truck curfews, not permitting trucks to enter or leave a city during daytime hours. This wreaks havoc on planning tours, where shows need to get their sets, lighting, sound and costumes from city to city quickly, in order to maximize performance time, thereby reducing performers and crew downtime.

For example, once would think that if you close a show in Hanghzou one night, you would load out everything and drive to Shanghai (about 150 km away) to reach it the next morning, however, not so, you would have to wait until late evening the next day to get the trucks out of Hangzhou, and into Shanghai by the morning of the day after that.

Add to this icy road conditions in the north of China during winter, very poor condition of trucks, typically with bald tires and broken engines, it’s a logistical game of tetris to coordinate a tour.

Apart from the obvious lyrics and scripts editing changes in translation, another of the biggest difficulties, was the recent addition of social media information of the touring company. The government now researches the histories of the traveling company staff to identify any social media posts that are either anti-China; in the eyes of Beijing, politically incorrect; anything against the moral codes of the central government; or anything disparaging China’s leadership, polices or rules, or positive towards:

The USA under Trump followed Chinas lead implementing the same Social Media information disclosure for all US Visa applicants in June 2019.

Very recently, China have also banned from television and stage, men with earrings, visible tattoos and even breasts that are too exposed or deemed too large. More on this excitement later.

You can imagine the havoc this causes with producers and live entertainment companies.