American film studios are playing a leading role in the growing strategic and ideological competition between China and the U.S., and Washington is taking note. Sixteen members of Congress wrote a letter calling for scrutiny of Chinese investments in the U.S. film industry, and former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wants a review of Hollywood’s pursuit of Chinese box office. “By controlling the financing and distribution of American movies [in China],” Wolf wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “and [by] subjecting them to censorship..., Beijing could effectively dictate what is and isn’t made.”
Government attention to these issues raises the specter of federal regulation of culture — a brand of McCarthyism that would be worse than the problem it seeks to solve — but the lawmakers’ warnings are on target. American filmmakers have already made common cause with Chinese censors in pursuit of profit. Writing scripts to satisfy the rulers of the People’s Republic doesn’t simply weaken the films the U.S. exports to China, it limits what plays at the multiplex on American soil, and it diminishes our understanding of the greatest geostrategic challenge America will face over the coming decades: the rise of China.
There are upsides to Hollywood’s courtship of China. Fine Chinese actors are now regularly cast in American movies — Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen will be featured in “Star Wars: Rogue One,” for example, and a treasure trove of Chinese stories, locations and aesthetics is gradually being introduced to American audiences. If Hollywood’s China partnerships help erode the cultural myopia of American film, good.
But China’s film industry isn’t run by the talent; it’s run by the Chinese Communist Party, which has grown increasingly assertive and paranoid since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Xi is waging a soft-power campaign that requires artists, filmmakers, writers, academics and the media to “serve socialism” and show “positive energy” by offering uplifting messages about the party.
China now has a larger middle class (consumers with annual incomes of between $50,000 and $500,000) than the United States.
Despite this oppressive cultural atmosphere, China’s economy continues to grow. China now has a larger middle class (consumers with annual incomes of between $50,000 and $500,000) than the United States. It is this combination of massive purchasing power, combined with aggressive authoritarian governance, that makes China a dangerous obsession for Hollywood.
In 2017, China’s box office receipts are expected to surpass America’s. Already, a movie cannot break box office records unless it plays in China, and it cannot play in China unless it is approved by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. American studios that want films distributed in China either submit to Beijing’s censors or become adept at self-censorship. The problem is compounded because China might object to anything — its censors don’t explain their decisions.
The result is that Hollywood is allowing China to determine which movies get made. As U.S. studios gain expertise in winning approval from the censors, they’ve stopped greenlighting projects to which Beijing might object. The proof? There have been no films in recent years that depict the Chinese Communist Party or mainland Chinese characters in a critical light. Instead, China saved the world in “2012” and “The Martian” and provided a stunning backdrop in “Skyfall.” We no longer see movies like “Red Corner,” “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun,” all of which were released in 1997, before China’s box office became the force it is today.
It’s not that we need anti-Chinese or Yellow Peril fare. But Americans have always used movies to help them make sense of major challenges. “The Great Dictator” and “Casablanca” were among hundreds of World War II movies that provided important perspectives on their times. The Cold War gave us “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “War Games,” to name a few. Vietnam inspired some of the best cinematic art ever. War in the Middle East has yielded “Three Kings,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” as well as landmark television programs such as “24” and “Homeland.” Of course, the Axis powers, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Saddam’s Iraq didn’t offer much potential box office.
Now China is the United States’ most formidable strategic, economic and ideological competitor. It is a one-party state with a dramatically poor human rights record. There is little doubt about what Hollywood’s go-to source of international conflict would be if the industry weren’t placating Beijing.
American struggles with racism, sexism, and technology have spawned countless good, bad and indifferent dramas, comedies, romances and suspense films. China’s social fissures and moral failings would receive similar treatment if Hollywood were functioning in a healthy way — to the benefit of the U.S. and, in the long run, of the People’s Republic. Meanwhile, China sees a stream of American movies about U.S. injustice, crime and corruption. Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” will be seen by Chinese audiences; neither they nor Americans will see Stone’s Mao Tse-tung epic because China has refused to allow him to film it for decades.
China is something new for filmmakers and the U.S. government — a nation of grave concern to us that we also want to sell to and cooperate with. If a free culture is essential to our national well-being, it matters that the U.S. is surrendering its ability to respond to this historic challenge through film. Congress is right to worry that Hollywood’s global business model has implications for national security. The film industry needs to prove it is protecting creative freedom in the face of Chinese pressures and temptations, before the invitations arrive from Capitol Hill.
Robert Daly is director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in Washington. He was a cultural exchange officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and later an actor, producer and program host on Chinese TV.
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