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How China ghosted Hollywood Studio slavishness to the CCP was for nothing

They really don't want to watch the new Matrix movie. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

They really don't want to watch the new Matrix movie. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)


February 10, 2022   5 mins

Filmmakers often end up as propagandists. Hollywood’s biggest directors went to the front lines, cinematically speaking, during the Second World War. Luminaries like Frank Capra, John Ford and John Huston made Why We Fight films to rally a war-weary nation. The series was so effective that Franklin Roosevelt thought they were “dangerous”. Movies were another way of making war.

Today, China has something different, and more sinister, in mind under President Xi Jinping. In speeches Xi and other party officials have repeatedly emphasised the need to “tell China’s story well.” That responsibility — until very recently — has been outsourced beyond the parties propaganda agencies.

The Communist nation sees film not as a weapon, but as the ultimate in soft power. A way to assure citizens and woo skeptics alike that China’s way of life is superior. Obey the state. Never think for yourself. Silence dissent. Is it any wonder it needs glamorous stars to spin those bleak messages?

But which stars? The answer for most of the 2010s was: Hollywood’s. The studios are only too happy to play along with China, assuming all those checks keep clearing. Erich Schwartzel’s Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy is a terrifying portrait of a slugfest for hearts and minds around the world. It’s one the West is losing. Badly.

Casual observers know how Hollywood genuflects to the Chinese film market. They chuckled over John Cena’s apology, in Mandarin, for suggesting Taiwan was a nation. Others noted that the upcoming Top Gun sequel removed a patch from Tom Cruise’s iconic jacket for the same reason. Those with longer memories will recall Paramount changing 2013’s World War Z to ensure China wasn’t the source of the zombie outbreak, like it was in Max Brooks’ novel of the same name.

These humiliations only hint at the geopolitics in play, and the long game enacted by China. Schwartzel fleshes out the bigger picture, revealing a nation keen on weaponising pop culture’s ability to impact thought on a global scale. It’s also the world’s biggest bully, using its fiscal might — and enormous market of movie watchers — to turn capitalism against itself. “Propaganda” doesn’t do justice to the thought control aimed at by Chinese policymakers.

They first opened their borders to U.S. films in the 1990s, without ever losing sight of the prime directive: Chinese supremacy. China’s cinematic market exploded in the 21st century, pulling U.S. film studios towards them in the process. Think of all the money you’ll make from our film-frantic citizens. Stateside flops became hits after opening in China — remember the World of Warcraft movie? It sank in every market other than China’s, where it banked nearly half a billion dollars for Universal Pictures.

How much extra coin did Disney earn by opening Avengers: Endgame in China? Try $629 million. Stars have sold their souls for far less.

Except not just any film is allowed into Chinese theatres. Gay themes are quickly excised, as is any excessive violence and nudity. Puritanical censors are one of the many hurdles American films have to jump before they are screened in China. Films defying authority or suggesting the CCP is incompetent are verboten. It’s a miracle anyone suggested a Red Dawn remake where China is the villain, as MGM did in 2008. So China became North Korea before the film was released in 2012 — one of many examples of China’s ability to warp storytelling that  criticises the party.

China is by no means the first country to put pressure on Hollywood. A fascinating chapter in Red Carpet looks back at 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The German government cajoled Universal to restructure Front to make it less critical of their efforts in the war. Universal did as it was told in order to access German theatres.

Decades later, Hollywood is once again ceding to a foreign power’s requests, but on a far larger scale than in the past. No US studio could ignore the fact that, before the pandemic, at one point China was building around 25 movie screens every day. So they censored their products. And it wasn’t just the studios. A-listers will lecture the American public on any topic that comes to mind — recall Robert De Niro’s splenetic interventions during the Trump era — except China.

It adds up to a chilling indictment of Western capitalism. When uncoupled from moral scruples, it plugs smoothly into China’s mainframe.

Authoritarians are usually afraid of their own citizens. If their leadership was so good, and so effective, they wouldn’t need to fiddle with every film that enters the country. But it goes further than censorship. The saga of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing’s fall from grace is deeply unsettling. This rising star had it all … until she incorrectly reported her film income, and the story went viral. The government erased her face from movie posters and placed her under house arrest, going so far as to observe her around the clock — even in the bathroom.

Her appearance this year in The 355, a girl-power actioner with Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz and Diane Kruger, came via digital trickery. Bingbing wasn’t allowed to be on-set during the shooting due to her banishment, so she was summoned on screen via green screen technology. You either play by the party’s rules, or your career is vaporised.

This authoritarian approach to cinema — a blend of puritanical censorship and pro-state cheerleading — is spreading. “If you want to change a nation, change it through stories,” the head of Kenya’s Film Classification Board tells the author in another segment of Red Carpet. Since 2006, China has loaned Kenya the best part of $10 billion for infrastructure projects — but Chinese influence is now more than roads and bridges. It’s culture, too.

In moviemaking, as in diplomacy, China is increasingly striking out on its own. Hollywood’s slavishness is no longer as effective as it once was. Some US movies now don’t get a Chinese debut despite endless diplomacy and backpedaling. And China is accepting fewer Hollywood imports than it has for years. Last year it blocked all four of Disney’s Marvel movies from release in its theatres.

American fare that does get past the censors is regularly rejected by Chinese audiences who a decade ago lapped it up. Blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984 now generate a fraction of the cash they once did in China. (2017’s Wonder Woman generated $90 million compared to $25 million for its 2020 sequel.) The recent Matrix Resurrections belly-flopped in China with an $11 million haul to date.

Instead Chinese audiences are turning to more blatantly nationalistic movies. Take The Battle of Lake Changjin, made in co-operation with the CCP’s propaganda department, and the most expensive film ever made in China. It tells the bloody story of Chinese soldiers thwarting American forces during the Korean War, with a cast of China’s biggest stars.

Luo Changping, a journalist famous for his corruption investigations, critiqued the film’s historical accuracy on Weibo as it stormed the box office. He vanished after was detained by police in October last year. In the end, this patriotic gore fest made over $900 million, making it the second largest global release of 2021, behind Spider-Man: No Way Home. Never has party propaganda been so effective, and so frightening.

Such brash patriotism is no longer the American style. We are a long way from the days of Capra and Ford. Hollywood stars routinely apologise for perceived sins, past and present. The wrong joke, the wrong political statement or just sharing the wrong virtue signal can spark an apology tour. When can we expect some mea culpas for an entire industry doing China’s bidding, while ignoring the country’s authoritarianism, militarism, and human rights abuses? Don’t hold your breath.

Red Carpet ought to be parachuted into the mansions and villas of Beverly Hills. Stars ought to emulate the courage of Richard Gere, who abandoned his mainstream movie career to speak up for Tibet. “Hollywood, once America’s most persuasive evangelist, remains beholden to another country,” Schwartzel writes late in the book. Ironically, that country is less and less interested in Hollywood. Gone are the days when American imports dominated China’s box office charts.

It’s a disturbing picture for US studios. Did Hollywood sell its artistic soul for nothing?


Christian Toto is the founder of HollywoodInToto.com, and the author of Virtue Bombs. 

HollywoodInToto

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

And now Hollywood is selling its soul to the woke with non-white quotas for performers, writers, technical personnel, and only movies with the appropriate social message will be permitted.
What’s missing: originality, engaging story-telling, entertainment.
Don’t expect China to make up the deficit. China is very good at exporting clothes, toys, electronics, appliances, pharmaceuticals, but it doesn’t do creative arts. Those are much too risky lest they fail to cleave to the official party line.
It will turn out badly for Hollywood in the end. But in the meantime we must live through an entertainment drought. I feel sorry for the latest generation of creatives who must hustle for indie funding.
Ah, well, thank goodness for Korean movies and the brooding, introspective European filmmakers. They haven’t sold out–yet.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“China is very good at exporting clothes, toys, electronics, appliances, pharmaceuticals, but it doesn’t do creative arts.”
it’s turned into one of their most ardent priorities, though. The Chinese government has noticed their weakness there and they are trying to remediate it (However alien the concept of a government sponsored creative sector can feel to us westeners).

Last edited 2 years ago by Aldo Maccione
David Barnett
David Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

Real art communicates something profoundly moving directly to its consumers that transcends (and may even be counter to) its overt semantic content.
I don’t see bureaucracy satisfying formulae ever producing anything but sterile rubbish that invokes an overwhelming feeling of “so what!”

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

I fear we’re heading straight to to watching “Ow My Balls” while drinking Brawndo.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

If freedom of expression is not allowed everything must be force fit into the required message. The range of real sensibilities must then been moderated. How can creativity be included in that?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Time for Hollywood to get a bloody nose… too many people earning too much money and too big for their boots.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Don’t forget the whole “lived experience” nonsense, too…

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

So are the independent film makers producing films that reference Chinese human rights, Tibet or Taiwan?

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago

In this case, China is correct. There is nothing attractive about a culture that has no self-respect.

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

True self-respect and confidence go hand-in-hand with an ability to openly reflect, and take criticism.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Whereas there’s lots to praise about a culture that frowns on gays.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

China only allows 34 western-made films to be distributed there each year. Despite that, as of last year, the Chinese market officially overtook the US as the world’s largest box-office, all but guaranteeing that studios will continue to do everything they can to get access to that market. Any plotline or content that might offend the Chinese Govt is removed – or the studio loses the chance to put any of its films into their nearly 80 thousand screens. (The US, by comparison, has just over 40 000)
But it’s hardly as though Hollywood is alone in its kow-towing to China, in the hope of material benefit.
Our political parties, our cultural institutions, our universities and our media, have all sought to benefit from a relationship with China – yet few seem to question what they expect in return.
The UK and most European states are completely in thrall to Chinese money. What price European solidarity? Well the Chinese know the price to undermine it and are more than willing to pay it.
The EU issued warnings against any member nation getting “gently ensnared” by BRI – China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the massive global infrastructure program that will trap signatories in unsustainable debt and thus give Beijing crushing leverage and influence over them.
For all the united face the EU (laughably) presents to the world: Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have all signed up to the BRI. And most recently the Italians, with their desperate economy, have also signed, in the hope they may see some crumbs fall from Beijing’s table.
But aside from the brute force approach of buying their way into controlling a country’s critical infrastructure, there is the more subtle and insidious element to the Chinese Govt’s reach and power. Political and business leaders who wish to benefit from a relationship with China know the best way, the only way, to achieve it, is to cosy up to the regime and speak and act on their behalf. Beijing have willing shills aplenty.
When News Corp was seeking to develop business interests in China, Rupert Murdoch knew he had to toe the line and so started undermining the toast of New York & Hollywood elite, the Dalai lama. Murdoch did, admittedly, come up with a pretty good line, calling him “a political monk in Gucci slippers”.
Our universities, since deciding they were to be run as businesses rather than places of scholarship, need Chinese students and Chinese sponsorship – and thus any lecture or research that is critical of China is practically banned. China’s influence over Cambridge University is so deep that Madeline Grant over at the Telegraph rather amusingly asked “how long until Jesus College is renamed “Xi-sus”?”
If you can influence our educational institutions, the media and the movies then you can tell whatever story you want. As ever, China plays the long game, and plays it well.
And yet the western liberal media endlessly bleat about China’s (or Russia’s) unhealthy influence and designs on the West – right alongside editorials that repeatedly refuse to support any Western counterweight to it.
They recognise the danger but cravenly appease them – just to avoid appearing belligerent – imagining that if we don’t poke the bear, or pull the dragon’s tail, then maybe they won’t eat us.
We’ve all seen that movie – it doesn’t end well!

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Indeed. The entire Imperium sold its soul to the CCP when the cash started gleaming. Ben Domenech is fond of calling it The Cathedral, but really, with their choke hold on institutions, we should just skip straight to Imperium. All the wealth and power and influence in the world.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

“…slavishness to the CCP was for nothing” applies to a lot more than just Hollywood. Capitalism delinked from free markets, free exchange of ideas, and individual freedoms, loses all of its creativity, and its power to lift society. No surprise we can now see that loss most graphically in the creative industries.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephen Walshe
R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

The sooner Hollywood is nothing but embers the better. For decades it has had a disastrous stranglehold on movies, infecting the world with its creatively and morally bankrupt fare. This is good news as far as I am concerned. Forcing postmodernist, thoughtless tripe on me while giving the commies a sanitised LGBT and ghost free version of their films was always rank hypocrisy. As Johnny Rotten once sang, “burn Hollywood burn”.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

Articles like this are why I subscribe to Unherd. Really interesting and eye-opening. I hope that Chinese journalist is ok. I’m not overly optimistic though after hearing about the disappearance of Jack Ma. If they can do it to him they can do it to anyone. What an appalling country.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Stars ought to emulate the courage of Richard Gere

Fundamentally, perhaps he just wanted to get off the hamster wheel.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Wasn’t it a cigar tube & jerbal?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Perhaps, but the hamster was easier to slip in.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

‘Slip’ being the operative word.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Hollywood has always been selling “soft power”, it saying to the poor benighted rest of the world, “hey, you guys, look at us, look our big cars, look at out big houses, our cities, our wide-open spaces, our clothes our food – you too can have this if you embrace all we are”. Yes there were films like “I am a fugitive from a Chain-Gang” and “Grapes of Wrath”, but most of their fare was aimed at celebrating American culture, even their gangster films are often glamourous. I’m not saying that I have anything against this, but I wouldn’t condemn the Chinese for doing the same.

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
2 years ago

The silver lining is that US movie makers will pivot back to domestic audiences. I for one am bored out of my mind by the drivel nowadays anyways. This pressure for them to go after foreign dollars is drying up. And for those worried they will crash, I would Not expect a Chinese firm to buy up a Hollywood studio as they are single minded in Chinese audiences only. A Chinese Studio on Domestic soil would not perform very well due to tight Chinese gov’t direction (unlike say Sony Pictures).
Realistically there is money to be made back at home that has been left high and dry with sequel after sequel. These latest movies are made for foreign audiences who may be interested in basic plot devices or plot devices that transfer well to low dialogue movies.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Mechan Barclay

Agreed, but their ideological bent will prevent them from doing the right thing.
We don’t need more entertainment containing the requisite happy homosexual couple, black lead actor, strong female character and loathsome white male all denigrating Judeo-Christian values.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Do the Chinese make comedy films?

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Oooooflung Dung meets Fu Manchu?

Last edited 2 years ago by SULPICIA LEPIDINA
Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago

I think the most disturbing piece of information in this story is the success of a film that is directly about the Chinese army fighting America.