893.4061 Motion Pictures/194

The Ambassador in China (Johnson) to the Secretary of State

No. 748

Sir: I have the honor to refer to despatch No. 220 of August 14, 1936, from the Embassy at Nanking to the Department, in regard to the confiscation of American motion picture films by the Chinese National Motion Picture Censorship Committee, and to enclose for the information and consideration of the Department copies of the following further correspondence68 on the matter:

Embassy’s note of August 13, 1936, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Foreign Office’s note of September 1, 1936, to the Embassy.
Counselor Peck’s despatch of September 15 to the Embassy.
Shanghai’s despatch No. 379 of September 15 to the Embassy.

In its note of August 13 to the Foreign Office the Embassy reviewed the circumstances surrounding the confiscation of the two films concerned, “The Cat’s Paw” and “Oil for the Lamps of China”, which are the property of Fox Film, Federal Incorporated, U. S. A., and Warner Brothers First National Pictures, Incorporated, respectively. The Embassy pointed out that the two American companies had not protested against the refusal to grant exhibition permits in the case of these two films, but that they had emphatically objected to the retention of the films as an arbitrary and illegal procedure. The Embassy stated that it concurred in this view as it was evident that the owners of the films, in submitting them to the National Motion Picture Censorship Committee for inspection, had manifested their complete good faith. The Embassy stated that there had been no attempt at concealment of the nature of the films and that no offense had been committed which would justify seizure of their property; moreover, when the companies were notified that the pictures could not be exhibited in China they had expressed their willingness to re-export the films from the country. The Embassy did not enter into the question whether these two films were, or were not, derogatory to China and the citizens of China, but stated that if the Chinese Government department concerned wished to supply the Embassy with a statement of its reasons for objecting to the two films, the Embassy would be willing to report the matter to the American Government. The Embassy stated that, apart from this aspect of the case, it must insist that the American property represented by these films be returned to the owners, and that the retention of the films by the Censorship Committee would be regarded by the Embassy as an arbitrary and illegal act for which no authority exists in the treaties now in force between the two nations. [Page 675] The Embassy therefore requested that steps be taken to bring about the early restoration of the films to their owners.

The reply of the Foreign Office to the Embassy’s note is most unsatisfactory in that it formally endorses and approves the confiscation of American property without due process of law and in a wholly illegal and arbitrary manner, and, as stated by Consul General Gauss69 in his despatch No. 379 of September 15, the Ministry’s action constitutes a precedent which is of serious concern to American interests. As pointed out by Counselor Peck in his despatch of September 15, the Foreign Office completely ignores the charge made by the Embassy that confiscation of the films is “an arbitrary and illegal act for which no authority exists in the treaties now in force between the two Nations”. I concur in Mr. Peck’s view that the question of whether confiscation of these films is or is not a legal measure has no relation to the question whether the films are, or are not, objectionable or whether producers have been guilty of wrongful practices.

As I do not wish the Foreign Office to gain the impression that the Embassy acquiesces in the action of the Censorship Committee in confiscating these films, I have addressed a further note to the Foreign Office, a copy of which is enclosed.70 I state therein that I have forwarded a copy of the Foreign Office’s note of August 13 [September 1?] to the Department but that I must insist that the films be returned without further delay to their owners, as I consider that their retention is an arbitrary and illegal act for which no authority exists in the treaties in force between China and the United States.

It seems to me that a deadlock has been reached in this matter and I will therefore appreciate receiving any instructions or observations which the Department may care to make on the subject. I commend to the particular consideration of the Department, in its study of the matter, the able despatch addressed to me by Counselor Peck on September 15.

Respectfully yours,

Nelson Trusler Johnson
  1. None printed.
  2. Clarence B. Gauss, Consul General at Shanghai.
  3. Not printed.