China’s Economy Faces Another Hurdle: Darkened Movie Theaters


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 the microblogging service Weibo in late May. “The original cinema visitor flow is gone.”

New data released on 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 percent compared with May of last year. 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 on 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 the 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Xi said during a visit on 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 Mr. 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.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

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      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

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    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


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 percent 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. The police confirmed his death in a statement but provided no details.

Once Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Coral Yang and Lin Qiqing contributed research.



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