(New York, NY) — PEN America today denounced the recent arrests of two Chinese social media users who made critical comments about The Battle of Changjin Lake, a state-sponsored blockbuster film set during the Korean War, recently released in China. Police have detained both commenters, veteran journalist Luo Changping and a social media user identified by the surname Zuo, under suspicion of “impeaching the reputation of heroes and martyrs.”

“These recent arrests are a shameful demonstration of how Beijing’s tight-fisted efforts at control of the narrative around historical events are anathema to critical thought, free expression, and human rights. Here, the authorities have wielded the charge of ‘impeaching the reputation of heroes and martyrs’ as a cudgel to enforce their views of history and of patriotism by threat and by force” said James Tager, director of research at PEN America. “To detain moviegoers for disliking, questioning, or even joking about a film, its subject matter, and its cultural impact goes against the purpose of literature and art. It also sends a clear message that only a specific set of opinions will be tolerated—one that supports unwavering faith to government figures. The chilling effects are both tragic and wide-spread: People are imprisoned for engaging with a film, while others self-censor for fear they may be next. Stories and popular films shape the way people think, stirring artists, writers, and everyday viewers to engage in honest dialogue on the human condition. Governments must not control and criminalize these dialogues. We call upon Chinese authorities to drop these charges and to revise these criminal provisions to conform with international human rights guarantees.”

Under a new Chinese criminal provision that took effect this year, speech deemed to be defamatory to the country’s “heroes and martyrs” is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Under a 2018 provision, such speech was considered a civil offense, although authorities could also pursue potential criminal sanctions for such speech under the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Authorities reportedly arrested Luo Changping on Thursday, after he reportedly posted commentary on The Battle of Changjin Lake’s portrayal of the Korean War. Zuo was reportedly arrested for making a joking reference to the death of former leader Mao Zedong’s son during the war, and is currently in administrative detention. 

In its inaugural 2019 Freedom to Write Index, an annual census of imprisoned writers, PEN America explained how governments may particularly target writers, intellectuals, and others who challenge their historical narrative. In the 2020 Freedom to Write Index report, PEN America concluded that “efforts of governments to restrict and even criminalize academic or literary narratives that diverge from their own preferred vision of history or national identity” were an increasing trend globally during 2020.

PEN America has previously documented the impact of censorship in China, researching the effects of literary and artistic censorship in addition to the censorship of online speech. In August 2020, PEN America published Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing, a report examining how Chinese government censorship exerts influence over Hollywood and the global filmmaking industry. In 2015, PEN America published Censorship and Conscience on Chinese publishers’ censorship of Chinese-language translations of foreign authors. In 2018, PEN America published Forbidden Feeds, analyzing censorship of online speech and its global reach.