What a drag to report that my enjoyment of a second feature film in less than a year has been marred by news that it’s been partly financed by China. Even worse – if this doesn’t yet qualify as a trend, it looks like that’s not far off, thanks both to abundant Chinese capital and official American indifference.
The news was especially distressing because the film was Star Trek Beyond, because I’m a Trekkie from back in the ’60s with the original TV series, and because this third installment was in my opinion the best in the current genuinely inspired “reboot” franchise.
So imagine how upsetting it was to see in the opening credits a reference to something called Huahua Media in some producer-type role. Since I wasn’t familiar with the company, I decided to suspend judgment and enjoy the film. But upon returning home, I learned not only that Huahua was indeed a Chinese company, but that it wasn’t even Beyond‘s first partner from the People’s Republic. On-line marketplace Alibaba had beaten Huahua to the punch.
Fortunately, this Chinese involvement in Beyond‘s production didn’t affect the content in any way I could see. In particular, there was no gratuitous plot alteration in order to portray China in a favorable light, as with last year’s The Martian. (Maybe because, by the time Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s idyllic 24th century had rolled around, China and other nation-states had faded into history?)
Nevertheless, China’s role in Beyond, and its growing footprint in Hollywood in general, are troubling for any number of reasons. As with The Martian (and other movies), content can be altered. And because any Chinese company large enough to make such international investments unquestionably is acting as an agent of the Chinese government, it inevitably will reflect the priorities of a regime that is both dictatorial and an increasing threat to U.S. national security interests.
Yet even if the Chinese government was democratic and/or friendly, its presence in the American film industry clashes with free market norms. Won’t efficiency and quality suffer, almost by definition? And why should domestic capital – or private foreign capital – be forced to compete with a rival with practically bottomless pockets?
And of course for Trekkies, Chinese investment creates a tragic irony. The Star Trek universe is a monument to pluralism and freedom. (Even keeping in mind Mr. Spock’s arguably collectivist insistence that “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”) And Roddenberry himself was clearly one of the great political and social idealists of modern American popular culture. China’s rulers stand for diametrically opposite values. If I was the series’ late creator and guiding spirit, I’d been rolling over in my grave (or, more accurately, in the space-borne urn carrying my ashes).
Washington isn’t completely oblivious to the prospect of foreign control of American creative and media companies. But it does seem uninterested in the role of foreign governments, and even of unfriendly, dictatorial foreign governments. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument that free speech principles require admitting even these actors onto such corporate playing fields, at least to some extent. But if that’s the road the U.S. government continues down, how about a little transparency? In other words, if Americans are going to be consuming more and more entertainment and even news products that are subsidized by the Chinese or other foreign governments, don’t they at least have a right to know?