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Berlin-Based Ibsen Play Cancelled and Silenced in China



The 19th-century play by Henrik Ibsen called An Enemy of the People has been canceled from screening in China after the initial shows evoked an outburst of anti-government comments from the audience, highlighting how ridiculous and insecure the Communist Party’s censorship is becoming.

The audience reaction

The play was to be performed at Nanjing in Jiangsu Province by Schaubühne, a theater company from Berlin. The subject matter dealt with issues like control of the masses and corruption. However, the theater management informed Schaubühne that they would not be hosting the play because of “technical reasons.”

Previously, the team had performed three shows at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. And it was during these shows that a few members from the audience made comments against the authoritarian Communist Party of China.

“People were saying things like: ‘The biggest problem in China is the question of free speech,’ and things about economic scandals, corruption, and how the press is not revealing the truth… We thought they might not speak openly, but they did and actually talked about the political and social issues in China,” Tobias Veit, executive director of the Schaubühne, said in an interview with The New York Times.

The outburst seems to have raised the alarms of the state censors. After the shows, a few positive reviews of the play had circulated in the social media space. However, they seemed to have been deleted as of now. Jiangsu Art Center’s post about the play has also been removed.

It is believed that the theater management was pressured into canceling the show by the Party. A salon discussion on modern theater and Ibsen was also canceled. “I received a phone call from Jiangsu theater staff who told me that the play is off and they will return me my money as soon as possible… As compensation, the theater will give out a folk music show ticket,” a Weibo user is quoted by Reuters.

Chinese censorship

The Chinese Communist Party is well known for its zero tolerance toward any differing views. And just as with any authoritarian government, the one thing that it consistently cracks down on is art and artists. 

“It’s totally ridiculous that a play that is so canonical could be denied permission to be performed by censors… It just shows how censorship is getting worse and worse… They only want people to see things they want them to see. Any instructive ideas will be banned during the censorship process,” Radio Free Asia quotes online activist Wang Fazhan.

The Communist Party is said to have been unnerved because the play touched on topics like press manipulation and corruption — themes that pro-freedom groups in China actively campaign against. And for a government that keeps strict control over the press, such a play would inevitably seem threatening.

The iron grip of China’s censor authorities is so strong that even Google has agreed to ditch its support for freedom of the Internet” in order to gain access to the Chinese market. Though opposition against China’s authoritarian rule and unfair censorship is growing strong, both from its own citizens and from organizations outside China, Beijing seems to be in no mood to give its people the freedom that deserves.

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Since religious policies forbid any religious discourse outside the authorized places of worship, this means that no allusions to religion is allowed in the scripts. Xie jiao means those religious movements banned by the government as “heterodox teachings” (sometimes less correctly translated as “evil cults”). And “superstition” is a broad concept. Taken literally, it may mean that most scripts about mysteries of past eras, which include spells, magic, and supernatural powers should be eliminated.

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