Still, the scope of this latest iteration seems to dwarf that of its predecessors, not only because China's economic and political clout is so immense — successive years of GDP growth rates around 8- 10 percent have made its economy the second largest in the world — but also because the country's communist masters seem obsessed by the way Beijing is perceived abroad.
"There's no question that China is very sensitive to its image," said Stanley Rosen, an expert on the Chinese film industry, and director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "And as it has become richer over the past several years it's been in a position to do something about it."
Rosen said the ultimate arbiter of what makes it onto the screen of China's 12,000 movie theaters is a board of 30 to 40 censors under Communist Party control, representing different constituencies in Chinese society — women, for example, or the military. He said that while there were some indications the board was becoming slightly more liberal — last year's showing on Chinese television of the 2005 political adventure "V for Vendetta" was seen as a notable step forward — it remains beholding to sensitivities that makes its decisions sometimes hard to fathom.
That was underscored earlier this month when Chinese theaters pulled Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" at the last minute, despite widespread reports that Tarantino had bowed to censors' demands by dampening the film's violence. China said only that the film's screening had been halted for "technical reasons" without elaborating what that meant.
Nitin Govil, a specialist in Asian cinema at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, said instances like the "Django Unchained" cancellation were especially unnerving to the American film industry, because they underscored the problems of dealing with the seeming caprices of China's censorship bureaucracy.