BEIJING -- Television audiences across China watched an anarchist antihero rebel against a totalitarian government and persuade the people to rule themselves. Soon the Internet was crackling with quotes of "V for Vendetta's" famous line: "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
The airing of the movie on China Central Television stunned viewers and raised hopes that China is loosening censorship.
"V for Vendetta" never appeared in Chinese theaters, but it is unclear whether it was ever banned. An article on the Communist Party's People's Daily website says it was previously prohibited from broadcast, but the spokesman for the agency that approves movies said he was not aware of any ban.
Some commentators and bloggers think the broadcast could be CCTV producers pushing the envelope of censorship, or another sign that the ruling Communist Party's newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, is serious about reform.
"Oh God, CCTV unexpectedly put out `V for Vendetta.' I had always believed that film was banned in China!" media commentator Shen Chen wrote on the popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo service, where he has over 350,000 followers.
Zhang Ming, a supervisor at a real estate company, asked on Weibo: "For the first time CCTV-6 aired `V for Vendetta,' what to think, is the reform being deepened?"
The 2005 movie, based on a comic book, is set in an imagined future Britain with a fascist government. The protagonist wears a mask of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century English rebel who tried to blow up Parliament. The mask has become a revolutionary symbol for young protesters in mostly Western countries, and it also has a cult-like status in China as pirated DVDs are widely available. Some people have used the image of the mask as their profile pictures on Chinese social media sites.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia wrote on Twitter, which is not accessible to most Chinese because of government Internet controls: "This great film couldn't be any more appropriate for our current situation. Dictators, prisons, secret police, media control, riots, getting rid of `heretics' ... fear, evasion, challenging lies, overcoming fear, resistance, overthrowing tyranny ... China's dictators and its citizens also have this relationship."
China's authoritarian government strictly controls print media, television and radio. Censors also monitor social media sites including Weibo. Programs have to be approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, but people with knowledge of the industry say CCTV, the only company with a nationwide broadcast license, is entitled to make its own censorship decisions when showing a foreign movie.
"It is already broadcast. It is no big deal," said a woman who answered the phone at movie channel CCTV-6. "We also didn't anticipate such a big reaction."
The woman, who only gave her surname, Yang, said she would pass on questions to her supervisor, which weren't answered.
The spokesman for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television said he had noticed the online reaction to the broadcast. "I've not heard of any ban on this movie," Wu Baoan said Thursday.
The film is available on video-on-demand platforms in China, where movie content also needs to be approved by authorities.
A political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who used to work for CCTV said the film might have approval, or it could have been CCTV's own decision to broadcast it.
"Every media outlet knows there is a ceiling above their head," said Liu Shanying. "Sometimes we will work under the ceiling and avoid touching it. But sometimes we have a few brave ones who want to reach that ceiling and even express their discontent over the censor system.
"It is very possible that CCTV decided by itself" to broadcast the film, Liu said. If so, he added, it would have been "due to a gut feeling that China's film censorship will be loosened or reformed."
"V for Vendetta" was released in the United States in 2005 and around the world in 2006. China has a yearly quota on the numbers of foreign movies that can be imported on a revenue share basis, making it tough to get distribution approval. Other movies that failed to reach Chinese screens in 2006 include "Brokeback Mountain" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Chinese moviegoers that year were able to see "Mission: Impossible III" with Tom Cruise and "The Painted Veil," which was filmed in China and set in a Chinese village.
Warner Brothers, which produced and distributed "V for Vendetta," declined to comment.
China doesn't have a classification system, so all movies shown at its cinemas are open to adults and children of any age. A filmmaker and Beijing Film Academy professor, Xie Fei, published an open letter on Sina Weibo on Saturday calling for authorities to replace the movie censorship system that dates from the 1950s with a ratings system.
The airing of "V for Vendetta" raised some hopes about possible changes under Xi, who was publicly named China's new leader last month. He has already announced a trimmed-down style of leadership, calling on officials to reduce waste and unnecessary meetings and pomp. His reforms are aimed at pleasing a public long frustrated by local corruption.
State media say they have reduced reports on officials' trips as part of this drive. The official Xinhua News Agency warned this week that media outlets should "learn to play professionally in today's information age as an increasingly picky audience is constantly" putting them under scrutiny.
An American business consultant and author with high-level Chinese contacts said there is no less commitment to one-party rule in China, so any media reforms will only go so far.
"You can't have a totally free media as we would have in the West and still maintain the integrity of a one-party system," said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who wrote the book "How Chinese Leaders Think." He said he thinks restrictions are being eased, "but it has to be limited."
The new leadership has to tread carefully, Kuhn said, because in the age of the Internet, talk about reforms won't be forgotten.
"High expectations, if they are not fulfilled, will create a worse situation," he said.
AP researchers Flora Ji and Henry Hou contributed to this report.