Ahead of the Winter Olympics, Chinese officials warned athletes against talking about topics that cast them in a bad light. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told American athletes not to irritate Chinese authorities.
It’s the latest sign that China’s campaign to stifle dissent is succeeding in a major way: US institutions and corporations are increasingly silent to avoid angering the Chinese government.
Professional wrestler and actor John Cena apologized, in Mandarin, last year for calling Taiwan a country. In 2019, a Houston Rockets executive apologized for tweeting his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong after Chinese officials complained, and a major video game publisher suspended an esports competitor who had expressed support for the protests. The 2013 film “World War Z” has been rewritten to clarify that its zombie-generating virus did not originate in China.
Erich Schwartzel, the author of “Red Carpet,” which discusses China’s relationship with Hollywood, told me that one number drives these decisions: 1.4 billion, the Chinese population.
American companies and institutions want access to this huge market. Given China’s authoritarian leadership, that means abiding by the rules of the Chinese Communist Party — and, in particular, avoiding criticism of its human rights abuses. Thus, cultural institutions that are influential bastions of American values like free speech are now often absent from public conversations about China.
American sports and media have often highlighted American values, however clumsily or unfairly. These cultural exports helped spread democratic ideas internationally during the Cold War. Movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Selma,” which celebrate democracy, justice, and equality, can change the way people see the world and how it works. Celebrities can inspire people to vote or getting vaccinated, or highlighting overlooked issues.
Censorship prevents these institutions from shedding light on China as its leaders oppress dissidents, suppress democracy in Hong Kong, round up and detain Uyghurs, and threaten war on Taiwan.
When asked about doing business in China in an interview with Times Opinion writer Kara Swisher, former Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledged the reality that Hollywood faces: “You try in the process not to compromise that which I will call values. But there are trade-offs companies have to make to be global.
A recent example of censorship appears in “Top Gun: Maverick,” which is slated to premiere in US theaters this year. In the original 1986 film, Tom Cruise’s character, US Navy aviator Pete Mitchell, wore a jacket with patches of the Taiwanese and Japanese flags. In the upcoming sequel, these flags are gone.
Like Schwartzel reported, Chinese investors told movie executives that the Taiwanese flag was a problem because China does not consider Taiwan to be independent. Playing it safe, the leaders also removed the Japanese flag due to Japan’s own historical tensions with China.
Meanwhile, Chinese studios are getting better at making movies and aren’t afraid to take an anti-American stance. In 2017’s popular “Wolf Warrior 2,” Chinese hero Leng Feng rescues African villagers from an American mercenary called Big Daddy, who proclaims the supremacy of his people moments before Leng triumphs and kills him.
The consequences are asymmetrical. Chinese films proudly present their country’s values while American films remain silent about China, distorting the messages people hear not only in the United States and China, but around the world.
American films can even make China seem better. In the 2014 film “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” US officials were portrayed “in unflattering tones,” according to PEN America. The Chinese characters in the film, made with the support of the Chinese government, were more often selfless and heroic. Variety called the film “a beautifully patriotic film, if you happen to be Chinese.”
“Transformers” grossed over $1 billion at the box office, including $300 million from China. From a commercial point of view, it was a success.
A growing problem
The appeal of censorship is expected to grow as the Chinese economy, and therefore the potential market for US companies, also grows.
Some US lawmakers have tried to solve the problem, but any change in US policy would likely have little effect. The same free speech rights that these politicians stand for also make it difficult for them to tell Hollywood, the NBA or anyone else what to do.
Another problem: the most stark and obvious examples of censorship have involved blatant interventions by Chinese officials. But American companies more frequently practice what Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch calls anticipatory self-censorship: “Even before the idea for a film is conceived, the first thing they have to think about is: ‘How can I make sure that this film can be diffused in China? »
This type of self-censorship is harder to detect – or do anything about.
Ultimately, US institutions may have to make their own choice: reject censorship or maintain access to China. Right now, the desire for access prevails.
China’s censorship efforts are part of attempts to bolster domestic nationalism by Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader.
“Friends” is the latest victim of censorship on Chinese streaming platforms.
In a rare reversal, the original ending of “Fight Club” was restored after international backlash.
American academics say they also feel increased pressure to censor themselves when they talk about China.
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