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Hollywood and China’s Unequal Affair

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
April 13, 2017

Great-Wall-opening Director Zhang Yimou (second from left) poses with cast members (left to right) Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, and Matt Damon at the premiere of The Great Wall in Los Angeles, California, February 15, 2017. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)


Larry Hong is an intern in the Asia program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior at Columbia University. This is the first post in his three-part series on the relationship between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry.

With China on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest film market this year, Hollywood studios need no further incentive to tap into the vast potential of the Chinese market. Importantly, for the first time in five years, Hollywood studios will also soon be given the chance to renegotiate the terms of agreement on film releases in China. The current agreement between China and Hollywood on the import of U.S. films, negotiated in 2012, set the acceptable number of foreign film releases each year at merely thirty-four, even though Chinese authorities allow a certain degree of flexibility with the quota. Needless to say, the stakes are high for Hollywood in seeking better business terms with China. But as Hollywood seeks to get more movies into China, studios must also recognize that while producing more movies tailored to the Chinese market might be financially savvy, it waters down the core messages of American films and distorts accurate representations of both cultures.

We have already seen Hollywood’s self-conscious attempt to repackage itself to win the goodwill of Chinese authorities. Unlike the United States, which has a Motion Picture Rating System through which industry committees determine the content ratings of films largely independent of the government, China has a powerful governmental organ, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), specifically dedicated to the regulation and distribution of films. SARFT censors decide whether a movie is acceptable for release in China, remove scenes that do not fit their standards, and ban movies with a preponderance of unacceptable material.

At the most basic level, Chinese censors look to remove scenes with graphic violence, nudity, or sexual content. This is understandable as movies released in Chinese theatres are supposed to be acceptable for audiences of all ages. However, supernatural scenes are also unacceptable for Chinese censors, presumably because they do not square well with China’s official statement of itself as an atheist state. In the extreme case of the 2012 science fiction film Cloud Atlas, an astonishing thirty-eight minutes of film, which included gay and straight love scenes, were deleted. While the filmmakers insisted that the “integrity” of the movie was retained, the censors’ actions nevertheless altered the viewers’ relationship to the film as the love scenes are central to the film’s narrative. Some directors who are more protective of their work opt to participate in the censorship process themselves. Quentin Tarantino, who is well known for his ubiquitous and graphic depictions of violence, worked with Chinese censors to sanitize scenes in his film Django Unchained; however, Tarantino was so frustrated with the censorship process that he encouraged Chinese audiences to view the pirated version of his film online.

Beyond the regulatory considerations of violence, nudity, and sex, Chinese censors will also cut scenes that portray China in a negative light. Many resulting modifications, such as changing a line about the origin of the zombie virus in World War Z from China to Russia, are relatively harmless. However, sometimes cuts affect plot continuity. For example, the scene of a foreign hit man killing a Chinese security guard was deleted from the James Bond thriller Skyfall, causing considerable confusion for Chinese viewers. Additionally, the screen time for popular Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat’s villain character in the 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was halved (from twenty minutes to ten minutes) for “vilifying and defacing the Chinese,” which also prevented Chinese viewers from following the plot fully.

Thus, studios that produce films with elements that cast China in a negative light now face the difficult choice of either forfeiting the world’s second-largest (and soon largest) film market altogether or censoring their message to gain release. Many studios understandably choose the latter. Mindful of China’s censorship rules, Hollywood studios are thus increasingly practicing self-censorship. For example, the screenwriter for the movie Dr. Strange wiped out all references to Tibet because the studio feared a negative reaction from the Chinese government. Internal emails from Sony show that the studio voluntarily removed the scene of an attack on the Great Wall and other politically sensitive plots in Pixels for the same reason. Ying Zhu, a professor of media at CUNY, argues that self-censorship could eventually go even further; she suggests that because of the importance of the Chinese market, movies that discuss the life of the Dalai Lama (Seven Years in Tibet) or criticize China’s legal system (Red Corner) would probably not even get financing today.

This combination of government censorship and self-censorship creates a fundamental soft power asymmetry. Robert Daly, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China, points to the core of the problem: as Hollywood refrains from making films that are critical of China, movies that reveal U.S. challenges, such as Oliver Stone’s Snowden, are still seen by Chinese audiences. And since it is still rare for Chinese movies to get released in the U.S. market, Chinese filmmakers are also less bound by the need to appeal to American audiences. As time goes on, this could not only prevent Americans from acquiring an accurate picture of a rising China, but also lead Chinese audiences to develop an unnecessarily negative view of the United States, which might be something the Chinese government is happy to exploit for propaganda purposes.

The current love affair between Hollywood and China is best understood not as two partners in a couple, but as an unequal relationship between Hollywood, the Chinese market, and the Communist Party. The overwhelming control that the Party censors have over both the political and cultural content of films shown in the Chinese market has significant implications for how the two countries’ populations perceive each other and view the other country’s global standing. This political calculus should not be merely subsumed in the analysis of the trade relationship between two of the world’s largest film markets. As Hollywood prepares to renegotiate the terms of agreement on film releases with China, it should be aware that the outcome of these discussions will affect the broader cultural diplomacy between the two countries.

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