SHANGHAI — To the long list of obstacles holding back the Chinese economy when the world needs it most, add one more: padlocked movie theaters.
The country’s more than 12,000 cinemas have remained stubbornly closed. Reopening them is politically difficult, as the order to keep them shut came from none other than Xi Jinping, China’s top leader.
The rest of the country is trying to get back to business as usual after a devastating coronavirus outbreak earlier this year. Factories, shops, restaurants and bars reopened as much as three months ago and are trying to recapture business lost during China’s biggest crisis in a generation.
Some shop owners and mall operators say they keenly miss the business of moviegoers, who once filled restaurants and retail outlets with after-show business.
“The merchants around the theater are now miserable,” Gao Dezhi, a movie theater manager in Liaoning province in northeastern China, wrote on microblogging service Weibo in late May. “The original cinema visitor flow is gone.”
New data released Monday showed that Beijing is still struggling to get the country’s economy, the world’s second largest after the United States, back in business, although conditions are less grim than they were earlier this spring.
Retail sales in May fell for the fifth month in a row, China’s National Bureau of Statistics said, dropping an unexpected 2.8% compared with May 2019. The fall came despite increases in sales of cars and groceries and a rise in online purchases, though it was a strong improvement over sharper drops in recent months.
Industrial production statistics for May, also announced Monday, showed slow but steady improvement. Export statistics for May, released last week, indicated a deterioration since April as overseas demand withered with the spread of the virus.
China is one of the world’s most important growth engines. Getting the world economy back on its feet will be exceedingly difficult if Beijing cannot get China back up to full speed. But widespread job losses have shaken the public’s confidence after the country shut down vast swaths of the economy to contain the outbreak. Many are less willing or able to spend.
The country’s workers will face further challenges in coming months as a global economic slowdown, triggered by the pandemic, reduces the world’s demand for the smartphones, appliances, clothes and other goods churned out by China’s factories.
China itself still faces risks from the coronavirus. A new outbreak in Beijing has prompted authorities to lock down parts of the city.
With those risks in mind, officials have appeared nervous about reopening movie theaters. Cinemas closed in late January, as the coronavirus raced out of the city of Wuhan to hit other parts of the country.
Their continued closure seemed assured after Xi said they were not needed. Except for a few brief experiments in several provinces, they have stayed shut ever since.
“If anyone wants to watch a movie, just watch it online,” Xi said during a visit March 31 to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province in east-central China.
In a country that is gradually drifting toward one-man rule, no one has dared to challenge that decision publicly. It is part of a pattern of sometimes extreme deference to Xi that has repeated itself with increasing frequency in recent years.
Just about everything else has opened up across practically all of China. Even live theater has reopened, with customers allowed to occupy every other seat as part of social distancing. In Shanghai, a play has just opened that celebrates how people in Wuhan carried on everyday life as the coronavirus epidemic started there and was then eventually brought under control.
Malls around the world rely to some extent on cinemas to draw people out of their homes, with the hope that they will stay after the movies to dine or go shopping. But regulatory peculiarities have made Chinese shopping malls especially reliant on cinemas to generate foot traffic.
Shopping malls in the United States and Europe often sprawl across many acres in suburban locations where land is fairly cheap. Visitors frequently come by car. People may come and go from cinemas without ever walking past or through another business at the same mall.
But China has stringent regulations to limit low-rise urban sprawl. Car ownership is also far less widespread. So shopping malls need to be tall and located close to mass transit.
Malls in China typically occupy five to nine floors of a tall building. Cinemas are often on the top floor of the mall. Moviegoers pass many shops and restaurants on their way to and from cinemas, ascending and descending a seemingly interminable series of escalators.
A study four years ago by the RET China Commercial Real Estate Research Center found that more than half of the people who went to movies at a shopping mall in China bought food and drinks at the mall. More than 40% of moviegoers also go shopping, the study found.
Shopping malls and the stores inside are not the only businesses that are hurting these days because of the closure of cinemas.
According to Tianyancha, a Chinese data service on businesses, at least 1,542 cinema companies and movie studios have gone out of business so far this year. More than 8,000 movie production firms, movie consulting companies and other businesses related to the industry have also failed so far this year, according to the data.
The mysterious death of a Chinese movie executive captured national attention late last week. Bona Film Group, a Chinese movie studio and cinema chain that is still in business, announced that one of its best-known executives, Huang Wei, had fallen to his death in an affluent Beijing neighborhood.
The company’s announcement said that he had suffered from insomnia and depression and that there was no sign of foul play. Police confirmed his death in a statement but provided no details.
Once Xi makes a decision these days, implementation by lower-ranking officials is sometimes so swift that new difficulties pop up. The closure of cinemas is not the only example.
When Xi ordered northern Chinese provinces to cut smog in late summer of 2017, cadres junked coal-fired school stoves without checking if enough natural gas would be available to provide heat instead. When Xi also ordered weeks later that Beijing’s population be reduced, local officials bulldozed the homes of tens of thousands of migrant workers with little notice.
A bitterly cold early winter followed, producing nationwide anger over scenes of shivering schoolchildren and homeless migrants.
If the cinema order does not end soon, said Gao, the movie theater manager, the collateral economic damage could be significant. “If they do not open again,” he said, “many merchants around theaters will face the danger of closing.”