Why is China so interested in the Palm Springs Int’l Film Festival? A theory, and some context, from a regular attendee.

Over the weekend we learn that two Chinese films were pulled from the Palm Springs International Film Festival after Festival organizers refused to pull a sympathetic documentary about the Dalai Lama from the program (local Palm Springs coverage, here; New York Times coverage, here). This is an odd occurrence for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the Palm Springs International Film Festival is a bit of an after-thought in the film festival world, an event originally organized by then-Mayor Sonny Bono to resuscitate the city’s flagging fortunes as a high-end tourist destination.

And that brings to mind the question that many are asking: why on Earth would representatives of the Chinese government bother to travel to Palm Springs to make a fuss over a Tibetan film to be screened in a relatively minor festival in a sleepy town best known for gay resorts, senior citizen developments, early bird specials, and ancient Rat Pack history [update 1/13: and golf]? Is it part of a broader effort to censor content abroad? Or, as I suspect, a somewhat localized incident?

As it happens, I’ve been an annual visitor to Palm Springs, and its Film Festival, for more than a decade (go figure: the one year I can get a story out of being there, I’m in Shanghai). And so, as the lone China blogger with that distinction (pretty sure of that), let me offer what I believe to be the actual context for why this went down.

As far back as 2002, the Coachella Valley (of which Palm Springs is a part) has made efforts small and large to attract Chinese tourists to the region. And why not? One in six jobs in the Valley are tourist-oriented, and tourism accounts for US$1 billion in annual business. But things really kicked into gear in March 2009 when Coachella Valley tourism officials announced that the region would host roughly 100 Chinese media, tour operators, and government officials for a several day May junket featuring the region’s luxury resorts, golf courses, and cultural attractions. Among those attractions, is the annual film festival in January. Due to the swine flu scare, the May junket was canceled. But it was just as well: May is very late in the Valley’s tourist season, and the heat – and paucity of tourists – wouldn’t have made a very good impression, anyway.

Cut to November, when a fifty-two person delegation visited the Valley. Here’s how Monica Torline of the local Desert Sun described the event:

A delegation of 52 Chinese tour operators and media spent three-plus days in the valley, checking out the shopping scene, lush green golf courses and the natural sand-swept beauty of the area.

“Palm Springs was off the radar,” said Jason Pacheco of the California Travel & Tourism Commission, which organized the familiarization tour.

Well, it’s on their radar now.

[and yes, that last line is from Torline’s story.]

According to Torline’s story, reporters from state media, including CCTV and People’s Daily were members of the delegation. Have they kept up on Palm Springs since their junket? I have no idea. Have members of the Chinese consular staff in Los Angeles kept up on Palm Springs since the junket? Obviously, though whether that interest is new, or was sparked by the junket, is something that only they can answer. But my point here is that Palm Springs, and the Coachella Valley in general, made a concerted effort over the last year, in particular, to attract Chinese tourists, government (especially government concerned with tourism), and media to the region, and so it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that those same entities would – at some point – decide to flip through the catalog of the local film festival – the namesake film festival of a city that has actively been wooing them. Now, how they react to the Festival’s program, that’s another matter altogether (and I’m not thrilled at the reaction, believe me), but I think it’s naive to think that they wouldn’t react in some way considering their recent history in the region.

What are the repercussions? Darryl McDonald, the Film Festival’s director, told the Desert Sun that, in the future, the Festival may be blacklisted for Chinese films. I think, though, the more interesting repercussion – if there is any – will be the harm done to the region’s efforts to woo Chinese tourists. To be sure, this incident is largely unknown in China, but it is certainly going to be known among Chinese tour operators, and their patrons who – I suspect – might just choose to avoid Palm Springs altogether in the future, as a result. And that would be a pity because, take it from me, January is a marvelous time to visit the desert. Hopefully, the Desert Sun will get around to covering this side of the story, soon.

[Addendum: Whatever else you might think of the New York Times story on this matter, can we agree that the headline – “China and Tibet Skirmish at a Film Festival” – is inaccurate and over-hyped? Inaccurate because, the dispute in question is not between Chinese and Tibetans, but rather between Chinese officials and a Film Festival. Over-hyped because, generally speaking, “skirmish” is a noun applied to battle – and there’s no battle here (verbal or otherwise), just a request made and denied.]

9 comments

  1. I appreciate the gratuitous Sonny Bono mention but I thinkyou’re pulling your punches here in not making the obvious conclusion. If Palm Springs wants Chinese tourists and films it better learn to keep its mouth shut about Tibet and other issues that upset the Chinese Consulate, end of story. Tow the line just like google and US companies that want to do biz in the mainland.

  2. We watched Tibet fall and terrible measures such as ‘indoctrination through impregnation’, the starvation of tens of thousands after the Chinese banned the growing of Barley (knowing that grain does not grow at high altitudes) and there’s a good chance Nepal will be next.
    Would that Google, etc. did the right thing like Palm Springs International Film Festival organisers and not cave to a little pressure.

  3. Sounds like Chinese tourists is not as important as integrity. Nice to know that there are still people who can’t be intimidated or bought. Of course, this is something that will go over the heads of Chinese, way over their heads.

  4. Sounds familiar – just like the diplomatic ‘war’ that the Chinese govt started by decreeing that Chinese movies had to pull out of the Melbourne film festival last year because a Xinjiang movie would be shown…suprisingly even HK and TW movies toed the line, I guess so they wouldn’t lose money in the mainland. I stil fail to see how China can moan and complain about foriegn countries “interfering in China’s affairs” all the time, yet when they demand that movies showing differing points of view are shown overseas, then demand they be pulled, or even call in ambassadors and demand an explanation. I guess they only see double standards as being in force when China is on the receiving end.

  5. Two words, Adam. Outlet shopping. That is a driver for many government delegations. Any good organisational host would factor that in when planning a travelling schedul for visiting entities from China.

  6. Sue Anne – Your comment made me laugh out loud … and suggests that you’re familiar with the Cabazon Outlet Mall on I-10. An excellent point.

  7. This is the PRC’s attempt to enforce absolute conformity to its twisted belief of “all under heaven”.

    China is a bad country.

  8. Palm Springs is hot enough with Socal/AZ/Vegas hipsters and the gay crowd that they won’t miss a few Chinese tourists. I am a bit familiar with P.S., but I am much more familiar with the Chinese tours that barrel across the land. I can say that most of the tourists money go into a few restaurants that are probably nowhere near Palm Springs “come hither” district, and they tend to lodge the tourists in budget motels and hotels, probably out in Palm Desert or one of those tiny, dreary little satellites, perhaps one even on the way out to Joshua Tree.

    I could never figure out why Palm Springs would show up on Chinese tour trips, but they try to hit as many places as possible in a short time, so maybe logistically it fits in?

    Palm Springs has a decent thing going with the dayhikes, the clubs, boutiques, and the obscene, decadent golf monuments to arrogance and waste. Perhaps the Springs could become popular with Chinese tour groups of a very specific demographic.

    I imagine that most Chinese tourists never even see much of Palm Springs as they are in their rooms by nightfall… probably just as well, that’s not the… ummm… “Americana” that they want to see anyway, lol.

    And Joshua Tree is overrated except as a place to get smoked out and stare into the ether.

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