Home >Opinion >Columns >Hollywood’s craven surrender to blatant Chinese censorship

A few weeks ago, PEN America published a report on Hollywood, the United States’ greatest export industry with an unmatched power over minds and hearts, and its craven relationship with China. PEN is a committed organization of writers, including journalists and historians that works “to defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses". Past presidents of PEN International have included Alberto Moravia, Heinrich Boll, Arthur Miller and Mario Vargas Llosa.

The PEN report examines how China has made sure that Hollywood, to quote the country’s president, Xi Jinping, tells China’s story well".

In October 1998, Walt Disney Co.’s chief executive officer Michael Eisner did an abject mea culpa for making Kundun, based on the Dalai Lama’s life: “I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends." Jean Jacques Annaud, director of Seven Years in Tibet, about the last years of independent Tibet, declared that he “had never supported Tibetan independence, and… becoming friends with (the Dalai Lama) is out of the question".

Such is China’s power that Mission: Impossible III was released in China with several scenes excised, including a visual where the viewer can see a clothesline hanging from a Shanghai apartment airing tattered underwear. Chinese censors even demanded the removal of scenes about the sexuality of Freddie Mercury from the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Marvel Studios’ Dr Strange changed the comic books’ Tibetan master who trains the superhero to a Celtic one. The writer of the blockbuster film, C. Robert Cargill, cited Chinese censorship while defending the controversial decision. He said: “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that (the character is) Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political’." The Chinese today control American superheroes.

Most of us know about the disappearance of the Taiwanese flag in the trailer for the much-anticipated Top Gun sequel. In place of the Japanese flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket was a red triangle against a white background, and the Taiwanese flag was replaced with a random symbol. The producers did not even wait for the Chinese to object. And Richard Gere does not get much work because he is a Tibet activist. His films are not allowed in China.

This is how it works. In 2018, China’s leaders implemented a big shake-up that gave regulatory oversight over all media to the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CPD’s head, Huang Kunming, reports to Xi directly. The CPD in turn directly oversees the import and review of foreign films. It holds all the keys to access the Chinese market, with absolute powers to demand changes in a film. And the market is big. In the first quarter of 2018, China surpassed the US in quarterly theatrical box office intake. Chinese box office revenues, by one pre-pandemic estimate, were predicted to reach $15.5 billion by 2023. In 2019, the US box office total was $11.4 billion.

Now comes the pincer grip. A number of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) operate simultaneously as regulators and as business partners for foreign studios looking to screen their films in China. For instance, the China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) is a governmental body that acts as regulator and is also the country’s biggest film distributor. So you’d better kowtow.

The problem areas don’t end with the obvious ones—Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea. Time-travel stories are not allowed. The CCP does not want speculative alternative histories. Ghost stories, too. So Ghostbusters and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest were banned. And, most importantly, there is a quota system. Beijing allows 34 international films every year on a revenue-sharing basis. And of course, China uses that quota judiciously to maintain message purity. Aamir Khan obviously met these strict criteria with PK and Dangal.

Abominable, produced by Dreamworks, which was founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, all billionaires, endorsed Beijing’s territorial claims to the South China Sea, showing the main characters using a map with the “nine-dash line". China’s neighbours objected. Malaysia’s government demanded that the studio omit the scene for Malaysian audiences. Dreamworks refused, leading to the movie being banned there. As PEN states, DreamWorks “in essence, prioritized the wishes of one country’s censors over another’s".

There is much to learn here, while staying dedicated to the spirit of liberalism and freedom of expression. Consider the Amazon show Paatal Lok, where India’s only reality seems to be vile casteism. Or Indian Detective by the Canadian-Indian comic Russell Peters, where all of Mumbai at night looks like a red-light area. This is unfortunate. But wait. We are the market. Commercial interests will win. And we won’t need any censorship. We are not China.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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