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China, Hollywood and the censorship debate

  • Published at 03:02 pm September 9th, 2021
'F9' actor John Cena came under fire for calling Taiwan a 'country'| Collected

Today, China is the largest film market in the world, having surpassed the Hollywood box office in 2020

The global economic centre of gravity is moving towards Asia, signaling the fast-paced consolidation of a China-led economic order. The most populous country in the world relies on its geo-economic preeminence to acquire geopolitical concessions from rivals and friends alike. And Hollywood is no exception to that. 

It took a lot of people by surprise when the professional wrestler turned movie star John Cena profusely apologized after calling Taiwan a country. “I made one mistake. I am very, very sorry for this mistake, my apologies," he said in Mandarin. The apology came after the actor had provoked the wrath of mainland Chinese fans by inadvertently challenging China’s three Ts -- Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen -- subject matters that are best left unaddressed if you wish to stay in the Chinese Communist Party’s good graces. 

Aside from the three T’s, Chinese censorship strictures can appear increasingly idiosyncratic to the global audiences – some of the examples include changing Judy Dench’s line in the 2006 Bond film “God, I miss the Cold War” to “God, I miss the old times,” and specifically prohibiting release of Hollywood films with supernatural themes.

With China’s economic footprint etched in nearly all areas of global life, Hollywood, too, has found itself walking in tandem with the country’s increasingly assertive, nationalist policies. In this age of transnational censorship, China gets to edit the final version of a Hollywood production that ends up opening in the theatres of the remotest American towns or at our very own Star Cineplex.

Even the seven-time Academy Award nominee, Judy Dench was subjected to Chinese censorship in the 2006 Bond film| Collected 

Today, China is the largest film market in the world, having surpassed the Hollywood box office in 2020. The big five major studios – Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Columbia Pictures -- have an entrenched economic stake in securing Chinese release for all their films, which of course entails Beijing-imposed censorship as well as Hollywood’s preemptive self censorship. With the sole objective of making inroads in Beijing’s lucrative box office market, these studios have gone above and beyond to appease the Chinese government censors, which requires tailoring the cast, plot, dialogue, and even the promotional strategy to the party leaders’ whims.

Chinese film "The Eight Hundred" was the highest-grossing film of 2020| Collected

While entertainment outlets, Washington-based political commentators and American politicians from both sides of the aisle have denounced China’s authoritarian attempts to curtail Hollywood’s freedom of expression, few have voiced similar criticism for the American major studios that have turned filmmaking into a business to the exclusion of all else, and are now considering jointly making films with Chinese studios, which invites more censorship, not less. With the advent of streaming platforms, the big studios have a greater need to penetrate China’s vibrant, ever-growing theatrical market.

The biggest Hollywood companies are today multinational corporations, firmly rooted in a vast web of extra-regional economic linkages, with business interests scattered across the globe. One slight, one disapproving look, one slip of tongue can result in huge financial losses for these companies, and not just in the movie sector. PEN America reported in 2020 that Disney has a 47 percent stake in the Shanghai Disneyland Park while Universal Studios is building Universal Beijing Resort as well as two additional theme parks, six hotels, a water park, and an entertainment complex, which will be co-owned by Universal and a coalition of Chinese state-owned companies.

Also Read - Director Zhao makes Oscars history, but honor censored in China

It is disingenuous to suggest that the China-Hollywood relation is one of victimhood for the latter, and not of a budding romance. The movie companies are not cowering to Beijing out of helplessness, but have made a deliberate, profit-driven choice to tap the rising global power’s vast market. This is the 21st century love affair between the unique horrors of Chinese authoritarianism and the depravity of American corporate capitalism – both of which are minimally driven by public interests. This is a closed-door, carefully cultivated romance among the Chinese party officials, bureaucrats and American studio executives, who have no interest in inviting the public to hang out with them.

The so-called Biden doctrine, as defined by Hal Brands and others, requires gearing up for the “contest with autocrats” and deciding “whether democracies can compete in the rapidly changing twenty-first century.” While politicians ramp up the anti-China rhetoric at home as a corollary of the renewed great power rivalry and sigh over Beijing’s censorship of art and entertainment, we should take a pause before absolving Hollywood of its 3 As: agency, agenda and accountability; and remember that it takes two to tango. 

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