Lights, Camera, Censorship! How China Shapes its Image in Hollywood
China’s growing influence on the world stage is well known. It has, by some counts, displaced the US as the world’s largest economy; Militarily, it is increasingly assertive in the East and South China Seas. Yet the hard power of factories and warships is complemented by the “soft power” of public and cultural diplomacy. Whereas hard power relies on coercion, soft power is subtler, achieving the goal of global influence through manipulation, euphemistically called “liaison work.” Nevertheless, this communist public diplomacy is not confined to the halls of embassies and diplomatic quarters—it has a hold on that most typically capitalist industry: entertainment.
Consider the case of Anastasia Lin—model, actress, Miss World Canada 2015, and Chinese human rights activist. Lin immigrated to Canada from China at 13 and started theater school at 18. Her first screen role was as a young Chinese student who dies in a poorly constructed building in a film based on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Lin was unaware of the difficulties that would occur by accepting a role that the Chinese government perceived as critical.
Things changed when she accepted the leading role in The Bleeding Edge, a film about forced organ harvesting in China. It is, as she says, a film that “pushes a few buttons.” Other actors began to drop out of the production shortly before filming began because of the pressures exerted on them. Those who persevere in such politically sensitive projects, Lin explained at VOC’s China Forum conference on October 20, are extremely courageous: “They have made a conscious decision that potentially they’re going to risk their careers and they’re going risk their families’ safety back home... I would be a very prominent example. Last year when I won Miss World Canada, immediately my father was threatened, and at the beginning I didn’t even know why. Afterwards some people told me, ‘It’s really because of those human rights films you’ve participated in.’”
The film faced problems on the production side, too. After winning multiple awards, it garnered the interest of several top-tier distributors—all of whom ultimately turned it down when they realized what it would mean for their bottom line to be viewed as an enemy of the Chinese government.
It may come as a surprise to most people, but China’s communist regime enjoys significant influence in Hollywood. American movies rack up hefty profits in China—Avengers: Age of Ultron earned more than $150 million its first week; Fast and Furious 7 pulled in more than $388 million, more than it made in the US. Money is power, and the Chinese Communist Party is keen to use it. China’s huge movie market gives it leverage to quash plotlines or viewpoints critical of the Chinese communist regime. Industry figures openly concede as much: “Ultimately, China is going to be not just the biggest market but also the arbiter of what can get made and will get made,” movie producer Rob Cain told the Financial Times.
In addition to its market share, China’s government actively controls what foreign films make it into China. As USA Today reports, “China currently allows only 34 non-Chinese movies into the mainland, all of them heavily edited by a state agency called the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. SAPPRFT’s mission is to portray Chinese culture favorable—and in line with the Communist Party’s agenda.” At VOC’s China Forum conference, journalist Matthew Robertson explained, “As I see it, the danger with large Chinese companies, whose executives rely on state favor, making Hollywood acquisitions, and with Hollywood studios competing to get into China, isn’t that we’re going to see a Steven Spielberg remake of The Red Detachment of Women. It’s that there are films that won’t be made at all, or written, or even conceived.”
Why is this dangerous? Many Americans already misunderstand the legacy and impact of communism. In a YouGov poll conducted for VOC, Millennials were most likely to view socialism and communism favorably, with only 38% viewing communism very unfavorably. Less than half of the millennials interviewed had a favorable view of capitalism.
The communist regime in Beijing not only imposes its ideological line forcefully at home, it also tries to push it abroad. This doesn’t always take the form of overt propaganda: it includes subtle influence into apparently apolitical realms like the entertainment industry. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rewards movies that flatter it and penalizes those that criticize it. It punishes its critics outside China and uses its economic clout to pressure others to do likewise. “Thus,” as Matthew Robertson puts it, “the contours of permissible discourse about China in the free world are shaped in key ways by the Chinese Communist Party.” The ultimate goal, and ultimate danger, is that the world internalizes the CCP’s categories.