As the Trump administration orders retaliatory bans on Chinese tech companies such as Tik Tok and WeChat, officials and civic groups have growing concerns about the influence China has over Hollywood.
A new report says that Hollywood companies have been censoring films to avoid losing access to China’s lucrative box office market, adding that China was effectively influencing movies released in cinemas around the world.
The 94-page report, published Wednesday, was compiled by the New York-based free speech organization Pen America, and said key players in Hollywood are increasingly making decisions about their films “based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.”
It said that in some instances, filmmakers or directors have directly invited Chinese government censors onto their film sets to advise them on “how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires.”
A new norm
The report concluded that appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has “become a way of doing business in Hollywood.”
Hao Jian, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a former professor at the Beijing Film Academy, told VOA he agrees with that conclusion.
“Because of long-term censorship, many production companies choose not to cross the red line when considering films for the Chinese market,” he said, "The Great Famine in 1959, the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the (Cultural) Revolution that lasted 10 years…all taboo topics."
According to the report, even if a foreign film has been released China, if the government doesn’t like certain lines or actors in the film, it could be banned, leaving the producers with no avenue for appeal.
Hao used the 2012 Quentin Tarantino movie, "Django Unchained," as an example. “One day after it was released in Chinese theaters, the American production company received a notice from China’s National Radio and Television Administration that the film would be immediately removed from theaters. No reasons given,” Hao told VOA.
Actors Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Selena Gomez and Sharon Stone are presumed to be blacklisted for participating in films critical of China, the report says. According to Hao, Hollywood companies will avoid casting these actors when preparing a movie for the Chinese market.
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at Heritage Foundation who has done extensive research on China's attempt to infiltrate American culture, said Hollywood studios should insist that any version of a film adapted for the Chinese market does not become the default version issued for global release.
"At least to our audiences, Hollywood studios should be able to say to China, ‘No, we are not going to censor our content,’” Gonzalez said. “Especially when Hollywood feeds itself so much on its support of freedom in this country. It’s constantly saying it’s fighting for justice here in America, but then went along with injustice in China.”
Banned, censored and cut
China has world's second-largest market behind the U.S.
According to the authoritative Hollywood Reporter, American films earned $2.6 billion in China last year, with "Avengers: Endgame," making $629 million. Based on the Marvel Comics superhero team, the Avengers, the movie, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, earned $2.795 billion worldwide.
But not every film is welcomed in China. In 2016, "Deadpool" was banned for “excessive graphic violence and nudity [that] could not be removed without affecting the plot.” Two years later, "Christopher Robin" was banned because the main character, Winnie the Pooh, is a figure that Chinese netizens use to mock China’s President Xi Jinping. The list goes on.
For favorable treatment by Chinese censors, Hollywood movies sometimes incorporate elements to appeal to Chinese audiences, altering characters and story lines, and casting Chinese actors in secondary roles.
In 2012, the producers "Red Dawn" planned to feature Chinese troops invading the United States. Then China’s largest newspaper published editorials accusing Hollywood of “demonizing China” and the North Korean army invaded instead.
In 2017, producers cut a kiss between two male androids in the 2017 movie, "Alien: Covenant."
Gonzalez said it is unacceptable that American audiences watch movies censored by a foreign power.
“I would like to see a call for Hollywood studios to have, for best practices, to say in their credit, this movie has been submitted to Chinese censors, and we made changes” to conform to with their requests, he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are also speaking out about China’s attempt to spread pro-China propaganda in the world’s entertainment center.
“In Hollywood, not too far from here – the epicenter of American creative freedom, and self-appointed arbiters of social justice – self-censors even the most mildly unfavorable reference to China,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a recent China-focused speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr last month blasted the movie business in a speech at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He accused the industry of giving the Chinese Communist Party a “massive propaganda coup” by self-censoring content to appease Beijing censors.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas introduced legislation in June that would cut off U.S. government cooperation to American filmmakers unless they agree not to censor their movies to gain entry into the Chinese market.