(from The New Yorker)
The film director Jia Zhangke, whom I profiled earlier this year in the magazine, has pulled out of the Melbourne International Film Festival to avoid appearing beside Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader whom the Chinese government has accused of instigating the recent riots in Xinjiang. (Kadeer is the subject of a documentary, “10 Conditions of Love,” which will also be shown at the festival.) Jia and his production company, Xstream productions, released a statement in Chinese this week, portions of which I’ve translated: We have no interest in meddling with the festival’s freedom of artistic exchange. Withdrawing from Melbourne is, rather, a kind of self-restraint. Xinjiang history is not something I’m well acquainted with, but the recent Urumqi violent incident was only two weeks ago, and I, at a minimum, should take a cautious approach. I don’t want to do anything that would tarnish those who died.
The decision to withdraw has startled fans overseas, some of whom tend to view Jia as a political rebel. But that portrait has always struck me as an oversimplification that fails to capture the nuances of his position in China. He is, emphatically, not a dissident director. He made an explicit choice years ago to submit his films to censorship in order to gain a broader audience. As he has told me, “Marginalization can be a kind of pleasant stance—I really admire many of those people—but I would rather expend enormous energy trying to dance with the many levels of the era in which we live.” Given the mood in China these days and the intensity of the official campaign against Kadeer, there is little question in my mind that if Jia had appeared at the festival with Kadeer he would have run into political problems at home. It’s not impossible to imagine that his films might have encountered distribution problems or his funding sources would have come under more serious scrutiny. (See the experience of the Gongmeng law firm.) Whether his foreign fans like it or not, Jia has decided that he would rather work within the system, and with his budgets reaching into the millions of dollars these days, it is understandable that he is more cautious than he once was about whether his films have a commercial future.
None of this is likely to assuage critics abroad who will interpret this as arguably China’s greatest living director bending to the autocratic demands of the government. But reading his comments today, I am reminded that the interpretation of the violence in Xinjiang looks very different to Chinese observers—even ones we think of as liberals—than it does to foreigners. As he has throughout his career, Jia has read the political winds and arrived at a tough, polarizing decision.
Tough decision? Dude, it's a no brainer.
If you want to get ahead, bow down to the master. What's so tough about that?