BEIJING --Chinese authorities ordered theaters nationwide to stop showing The Da Vinci Code yesterday after Chinese Catholics warned that the film could threaten social stability.
The film, based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown, has long been criticized as insulting to the Catholic Church but has already earned more at the box office than any other film shown in China this year, and it was seen within the local industry as a contender to overtake Titanic as the highest-grossing film here in history.
But protests by China's official Patriotic Catholic Association and a small-scale demonstration involving a few dozen Catholics in Hebei province were listed as evidence that the film was becoming a political risk, according to people involved in the decision to stop showing it.
That the film was allowed to run for 22 days before yesterday's order removing it from theaters suggested that a political compromise had been struck between Chinese Catholic leaders and the China Film Corp., the state-owned company that imported and distributed the film.
China Film had time to recoup its investment in importing, advertising and distributing the film and to collect sizable revenue. But the state-backed Catholic leadership was also able to claim a victory, at a time when it has been struggling with the Vatican for the loyalty of Chinese Catholics.
"Our view is that it should never have been released in the first place," Liu Bainian, vice president of the China Patriotic Catholic Association, said in an interview. "Removing it is the right decision for the sake of social stability."
Liu issued a call to boycott the film when it was first released here in mid-May, but the call largely went unheeded. He declined to comment on the reason the authorities reversed themselves after several weeks of brisk ticket sales, but he hailed the decision as a victory.
"Of course, we are very happy," he said.
Weng Li, a spokesman for China Film, said the withdrawal had nothing to do with politics and was entirely a commercial decision by the company based on declining tickets sales.
"The decision we made is no different from the way such decisions are made in America or anywhere else," he said. "It was based solely on ticket sales and not on any other factor."
He said that China Film had a number of other films awaiting release in theaters, including movies celebrating the Communist Party's 85th anniversary on July 1, and that The Da Vinci Code was crowding them out.
But a more senior official at China Film said China's Propaganda Department ordered the film removed from screens. The official, who said he could not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the film had earned more than 100 million Chinese yuan, or about $13 million, and continued to sell far more tickets than any other offering in Chinese cinemas.
"The decision was political and had nothing to do with declining ticket sales," the official said.
Foreign and domestic films are subject to intensive political vetting before being shown in China. Authorities tend to watch most closely for content that they think could undermine the Communist Party's hold on power.