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China’s Propaganda Ministry, the Hollywood Branch

Move over NBA.  Hollywood is puckering up to kiss China’s ring too.

According to a lengthy report by PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization headquartered in New York, American motion picture studios have been working overtime to appease the Chinese Communist Government and thus maintain access to the high value Chinese box office.

According to this report, which is entitled Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing, major film studios are basing their casting, content, dialogue, and plotline decisions on what can gain them the approval of the Chinese government.  Those studios that meet with the approval of the powers that be will receive more favorable release dates and more favorable advertising options among other things.

The reason for this kowtowing is obvious: money.  China is currently the second largest film market in the world, trailing only the U.S.  It is expected to surpass the U.S. and take the top spot in the near future.  Just last year Hollywood films raked in $2.6 billion dollars from the communist country.  It seems clear that any movie that wants to be financially successful needs to do well in China.

With this treasure trove as a prize, many in Hollywood aren’t even waiting to hear from the censors about what they may and may not do on film.  In many cases, Directors hire advisors with special knowledge about the Chinese film market to assist them in purging films of anything that may rub the authorities in Beijing the wrong way. 

Some of the things they look for: anything that might damage the image of the Chinese Communist Party, anything that might garner sympathy for enemies of the Chinese regime, and anything that might undermine Chinese governmental policy (either foreign or domestic).

Some decision by Hollywood in recent years have garnered criticism because they are thought to have been made to appease China.  These include casting Tilda Swinton in the movie Doctor Strange in the place of a character from the comics who was a man of Tibetan ethnicity, the scrubbing of the Taiwanese Flag and Japanese flag from the movie Top Gun: Maverick, and an outright ban on the 2014 movie Noah because of its religious content.  Perhaps setting the stage for all of this was the 1997 movie Seven Years in Tibet that earned Paramount Pictures a five year ban on releasing movies in that country.

U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr has even weighed in by criticizing the practice in June.  At the time he said the American Film Industry is “all too willing to collaborate with the Chinese Communist Party.”

For anyone who may be scoffing at the idea of Hollywood collaborating with China, you might be interested to know that such a thing has happened before.  In 2013, Harvard historian Ben Urwand wrote the book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.  Here he alleges that in the 1930’s, Hollywood self-censored in a way to appease Hitler and maintain access to the lucrative German movie market in much the same way the PEN America report alleges they’re doing with China today. 

At the dawn of the movie industry, Germany was the second largest motion picture market in the world.  The economic downturn in post-World War 1 Germany changed that, however.  But when Hitler came to power, many in Hollywood thought that the country would return to being a major market and, in fear of losing out on the money that would entail, cooperated with Nazi authorities in movie making.

According to Urwand, “In the 1930’s the Hollywood studios not only collaborated by not making films that attacked the Nazi’s, they also did not defend the Jews or touch on Germany’s persecution of the Jews.”  Urwand goes on to contend that film studios ran the risk of having their permits revoked in Germany if they showed movies damaging to the country or its leadership, not only in Germany itself but anywhere in the world.  Additionally, 1930’s Hollywood let Nazis censor scripts, remove credits from Jews, and even stop movies in mid production.  According to Urwand, they even forced one executive at MGM (the most powerful studio at that time) to divorce his Jewish wife.

The report, Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing, goes on to lay out a number of recommendations to for Hollywood to avoid repeating its mistake of the 1930’s. 

First, studios must not allow the Chinese censored version of any film to become that films default version for global release. 

Second, Hollywood studios and creative institutions like the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild should bring public awareness to the actions of the Chinese government to censor the film industry.

Third, Hollywood should commit to the inclusion and promotion of well developed, three-dimensional Asian and Asian-American Characters.

Finally, Hollywood should engage in acts of solidarity with Chinese filmmakers who have been censored by their government.

Hollywood can, and often is, a powerful vehicle for messaging and can help shape the discussion and narrative of the culture.  This is a power they have not always used for good.  What’s even worse is the way they have allowed themselves, in recent years, to be used by hostile regimes for their own messaging and propaganda.  This is something that all Americans should be aware of and should respond to.  The best way to stop it is to give Hollywood an ultimatum.  Americans should keep track of what movies have been influenced by the Chinese and refuse to see them.  If Hollywood is forced to choose between the second largest market, and the first largest market which also happens to be their home, they will choose America every time. 

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