Friday, June 09, 2006

Plot Thickens: Why China Pulled The Da Vinci Code

Why did China pull The Da Vinci Code?

Like the plot of the controversial film and the bestselling novel on which the film is based, Beijing's unprecedented decision to command Chinese cinemas to stop showing the American blockbuster is more than mysterious. It's baffling.

Nobody believes the official explanation--to make way for domestic films. The Da Vinci Code was given the widest-ever release of a foreign film in China; and it was well on its way to becoming one of the biggest box office hits in the country's history.

No, observers say, there must be other explanations for why the government withdrew The Da Vinci Code after approving its distribution--the first time this has happened to a foreign film.

They're right: there are other reasons, of which, the least important is a wilingness to placate the Vatican, which strongly objects to the film's by now well known premise that there exists a centuries-old secret society, called the Priory of Sion, which is dedicated to safeguarding Christ's sacred bloodline. Relations between Beijing and the Holy See are chilly, and efforts to restore formal diplomatic ties, which were cut in 1951, have been seriously set back by China's determination to tighten its control over the state-sanctioned Catholic church that claims some four million followers. (Millions of Chinese belong to an underground church that the government regards as subversive. In all, there are approximately 20 million Christians in China, out of a total population of 1.3 billion people.)

Ironically, our correspondent reports, it is not China's Christians that Beijing had in mind when it pulled the plug on The Da Vinci Code, but its Muslims. China does not want to risk setting in motion a chain of events that could lead to real or perceived insults to Islam and its prophet Muhammad.

Beijing's decision was influenced by its longtime ally Pakistan, which last Saturday also banned The Da Vinci Code--both the film and the book--as "blasphemous," even though Christians only make up three percent of Pakistan's 150 million people. Islamist organizations, which opposed allowing the film to be distributed in Pakistan, constitute a serious threat to stability; and authorities are keenly aware that "a blasphemous film about Jesus today could be followed by a blasphemous film--or cartoon--about Mohammed tomorrow," as an analyst familiar with Pakistan's political picture puts it.

"Better to ban everything before something spins out of control," he says, recalling that a 1993 cartoon ridiculing Muslims led to an uprising in China's northwestern Xinjiang autonomous region. Paramilitary police had to be called in to storm an occupied mosque.

There are between 20 million and 100 million Muslims in China--estimates vary widely--including a significant segment that is increasingly influenced by fundamentalist and Islamist teachings. In predominantly Muslim Xinjiang, authorities are engaged in a bloody struggle with separatists and religious and ethnic activists.

Setting aside the potential for religious unrest, there is another possible explanation for Beijing's move against The Da Vinci Code. China's ruling Communist Party is only comfortable with conspiracy theories of its own making--for example, that the United States created SARS as part of an effort to contain China's rise. Government-run rumor mills regularly use the censored, filtered Internet to test and promote conspiracy theories in order to explain anything bad that happens in China.

The ideas in The Da Vinci Code are way beyond Beijing's control; in fact, they have taken on a life of their own. A worldwide publishing phenomenon, the novel has spawned a series of successful nonfiction books and television programs about the sacred bloodline theory, including at least one volume, The Sion Revelation, which argues that the Priory of Sion was a hoax created by a secular secret society to divert attention from its sinister plans for world domination. The supposed achievements of this powerful, international group, known as "synarchists," include installing Charles de Gaulle as president of France and the step-by-step formation of a "United States of Europe," more commonly known as the European Union.

None of which has anything whatsoever to do with China ... except ... possibly ... for our recent report about a Hollywood producer's efforts to pitch a feature film that somehow connects synarchy with China's capitalist embrace and economic expansion. The screenplay's story line is said to revolve around an Ivy League professor-blogger who unearths an international conspiracy to orchestrate a Chinese economic crash in order to first destroy and then rebuild the global financial system. And the hero reportedly bears a striking resemblance to the actor Richard Gere, whose activism on behalf of Tibet has earned him prominent placement on China's celebrity enemies list.

Could this story have made the difference? Could an article in our little blog--which is blocked on the mainland--have come to the attention of the powers that be in Beijing and prompted them to also ban The Da Vinci Code?

The idea is absurd, of course, ridiculous, preposterous....

We'll start writing the novel tomorrow.

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