Chinese state media have taken popular online movie review sites to task for giving three new domestic blockbusters failing marks, accusing them of trying to undermine the domestic cinema industry by manipulating ratings.

Foreign films are in high demand at the world’s second-biggest box office, a fact that has long annoyed Beijing, which both covets Hollywood’s global reach and economic power and fears that it is exposing domestic audiences to pernicious “Western” thinking.

The three Chinese blockbusters.

The number of overseas movies given releases each year is strictly limited, and an opinion piece on the smartphone app of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said some influential commentators had made “malicious and irresponsible comments that seriously damaged” domestic films.

The piece, published Tuesday, questioned whether two Chinese film review websites — Douban and Maoyan — were manipulating domestic film ratings by giving them exceptionally low scores.

“Five-star” comments were deleted, while domestic films received thousands of “one-star” ratings even before their midnight premieres ended, state broadcaster CCTV alleged separately.

Following the remarks, Maoyan cancelled part of its film ranking function.

Internet users, however, took the opportunity to write some reviews of their own, bombarding state media with snide remarks about the government’s terrible taste in movies and restrictive attitudes towards free speech.

“You won’t even let us say a movie is terrible,” one commenter said.

Douban’s CEO, too, objected to the characterisation of the site, saying the reviews accurately affect audience opinion.

In response, the People’s Daily seemed to walk back its remarks Wednesday, saying the real reason for the bad ratings might simply be bad movies.

“Can films really be ruined by ‘one-star’ scores? Can the ecological environment of films really be affected by ‘negative comments’?” it asked.

The second article, not the first, reflects the official line, the paper added.

China’s annual box office reached 44.1 billion yuan ($6.34 billion) in 2015, with domestic films securing 61.9 percent of sales, according to China Movie Data Information Network.

In December, three domestic films battled for the country’s box office: “The Great Wall” directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, “Railroad Tigers” starring Jackie Chan, and “See You Tomorrow” produced by Wong Kar-wai.

Ticket sales have been brisk, but audiences panned their poor acting and thin stories.

One common complaint is Chinese censors’ heavy-handed management of the creative process from script to theatre.

In November, the country passed legislation saying films should promote “socialist core values”, while avoiding the kind of themes — sex, violence and politics — that are a large part of Hollywood’s appeal.

Chinese companies have been ramping up investment in the foreign movie industry, but they often have to walk a thin line between balancing strict censorship at home and appealing to global audiences.

In January, Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group signed a $3.5 billion deal to buy Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, the company behind the “Batman” trilogy and “Jurassic World”, as well as “The Great Wall”.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.