One of my great fears about the breakneck, corporate-driven expansion and deepening of U.S.-China relations at all levels has always been that it would steadily infect American society with Beijing’s autocratic and corrupt official values. In fact, I’ve always considered this a far likelier to happen, and likelier to happen sooner, than the conventional wisdom (generated largely by this offshoring lobby and their witting and unwitting dupes in the political and media classes) that greater integration between the two economies and societies would foster greater freedom and implant similar Western values in China. Sadly, a new Washington Post report on China’s growing, dangerous, and hitherto neglected influence over Hollywood supports my pessimism.
Post reporter Ana Swanson tells a powerful and depressing story of how the lure of more access to China’s still strictly controlled market for foreign films has given “the Chinese government and its support of censorship” a “surprisingly big hand in shaping the movies that Americans make and watch.” As Swanson explains:
“For Hollywood movies trying to get on [the] select list [of movies approved for showing in the PRC], portraying China in a positive light is key. Any foreign film that is shown in theaters in China must be approved by the Film Bureau, part of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which reports to the highest levels of the Chinese government.”
Swanson notes that some of the changes made to curry favor with Beijing seem harmless, and that others arguably provide “ helpful dose of cultural exposure for isolated American audiences.” But in their eagerness to expand the global box office for specific movies, and to cement their reputations as “friends of China,” Hollywood studios have also engaged in much more flagrant and troubling brown-nosing.
In my view, the worst example described by Swanson entails the 2012 remake of the 1984 Cold War action feature Red Dawn. The original depicted Chinese invaders as the villains. But three years ago, America was portrayed as being under attack by North Korea.
But this award might also be deserved by 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. Not only was the film made with an assist from Chinese media companies – which are all firmly under the government’s thumb. But it also contains what seems to be a completely gratuitous scene of a Chinese defense minister gallantly vowing to protect Hong Kong.
There’s not much the U.S. government can legally do to supply Hollywood with a backbone. And the American entertainment industry can’t reasonably be expected to ignore the potential of China revenues. So maybe the best U.S. response is one suggested by a China specialist Swanson interviewed: Require that all such films explicitly contain the notification, “This content has been modified by Beijing.” Such truth in labeling would underscore that, although Americans are confident enough in their own system’s openness to allow Beijing-influenced content into the U.S. market, they also take seriously another important value: the consumer’s right to know.