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Hollywood exercises self-censorship so as not to offend China

23. februar 2021 - International - af Kirsten Valeur

Films such as Seven Years in Tibet from 1997 are critical of China and would not be able to be produced today, as China has gained decisive influence in the film market and has great influence upon which stories are being told. Hollywood filmmakers adapt to the conditions and exercise self-censorship.

Three films from 1997 that would not be able to be produced today:

Seven years in Tibet
The Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer was part of the team that first climbed the north side of the Eiger in 1938. Harrer participated in an expedition to the Himalayas in 1939, and after escaping from an Indian prison, he arrived in Tibet. Here he spent the years 1946-1952 in Lhasa, where he came close to Tibetan culture and became friends with the then ten-year-old 14th Dalai Lama, whom he taught English and Western culture. Harrer experienced China's invasion of Tibet in 1950-1951, after which he returned to Austria in 1952. That same year, Harrer published the autobiography Seven Years in Tibet.

Tibet was an annexed autonomous region in China until the uprising in 1959, when the Dalai Lama, after years of hesitation, ultimately decided to flee to India. In 1982, after 30 years of absence, Heinrich Harrer was given the opportunity to return to Tibet, and he describes his reunion in the book ‘Return to Tibet - Tibet after the Chinese Occupation’. It was an oppressive experience for him to revisit the now destroyed and vandalized monasteries and cultural treasures, just as old acquaintances told him terrible stories about concentration camps, forced labor and political assassinations.

In 1997, the production company ‘TriStar Pictures’ filmed the biography Seven Years in Tibet. The film was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starred Brad Pitt. It became a huge audience success, and the film garnered several awards. The People's Republic of China, however, was not thrilled, criticizing the film's portrayal of harsh and arrogant Chinese officers tyrannizing the locals, while the 14th Dalai Lama, on the other hand, is portrayed positively. Brad Pitt was subsequently banned from entering China and was not allowed to return until 2016.

Kundun
In 1997, Disney also produced a film about Tibet and especially about the spiritual leader Dalai Lama, whose nickname is Kundun. Martin Scorsese was the director, and the cast included both a grand nephew and a niece of the Dalai Lama. The film takes place in Tibet in the years 1937-1959, following the 14th Dalai Lama's selection, his upbringing, China's invasion, and oppression of the Tibetan people, the persecution of the Dalai Lama, and his subsequent flight to India.

China put pressure on Disney not to complete the film, but when Disney ignored the threats, the Chinese government banned all Disney films. Disney's then-director Michael D. Eisner says, "All of our business in China was suspended from one day to the next." Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and carried out intense lobbying work. In 1998, a meeting was held between Michael D. Eisner and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. Eisner apologized here for the Kundun movie, calling it a "stupid mistake." "The movie was an insult to our friends, but apart from journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it." The apology opened up for Disney to later have an amusement park in Shanghai. However, director Martin Scorsese was banned from entering China.

Red Corner
A third China-critical film from 1997 is the production company MGM's film Red Corner. Starring actor Richard Gere, who for many years has been involved in the fight for a free Tibet and is friends with the Dalai Lama. The thriller is about a businessman who is in China to enter into an important trade agreement on satellite rights for the Chinese TV market. He is wrongfully accused of murder and brutally treated by a corrupt Chinese judiciary, while the United States is reluctant to help him for fear of Chinese retaliation.

Richard Gere says there was great satisfaction with the film. The management of the film company called him and he was invited into Oprah Winfrey's show. Suddenly he was told that he was not allowed to do press work. MGM wanted to land a deal with the Chinese but was told that if they released the film, the Chinese would not buy it.

This was to be the last Hollywood film to be critical of communist China. The country's influence on the global film industry has only grown since then.

Hollywood actors are excluded from China
Richard Gere supports the Tibetan Independence Movement, making him undesirable in China. In the United States, he has, in recent years, been excluded from the films of major production companies, as they did not want to risk sanctions from China due to his openness, and he has therefore mainly had to use smaller, independent film companies. "There are definitely movies that I can't participate in because the Chinese would say, 'Not with him,'" Richard Gere says. "I recently had an episode where some people said they could not fund a movie I was in because it would make the Chinese angry." When Gere at one point was working on an independently funded film that would not hit the Chinese market, he had to work with a Chinese director who jumped ship at short notice. The instructor explained on a secure phone line that if he had worked with Richard Gere, he and his family would never be able to leave the country, nor ever be able to work again.

Harrison Ford has been interested in the Tibetan cause since 1992. When his then-wife, Melissa Matheson, was the screenwriter of the film Kundun, he had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama and began speaking publicly about the Tibetan cause. In 1995, he spoke in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the need for Tibetan independence and highlighted China's human rights violations. He has since been banned from entering China.

Sharon Stone spoke at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival about the recent earthquake in Sichuan, in which 90,000 people died, believing it was the result of bad karma built up due to the Chinese oppression of the Dalai Lama. The comment provoked outrage, and she apologized for it, but it did not appease the Chinese government, which responded by banning all films in which she participates.

China's film industry is becoming a world market leader
The USA has so far been the world's largest film market, but that position was taken over by China in the autumn of 2020. Until October, earnings from ticket sales in 2020 were 1.988  billion dollars in China vs. 1.937 billion dollars in the United States. China has thus achieved a goal, which was announced in 2011: to increase China's "soft power and the international influence of its own culture". In 2015, the desire to "build our country to become a socialist, cultural superpower" is expressed.

The development has gone fast. In 2005, there were 4,000 movie theaters in China; now there are 70,000.

In 2016, the Chinese investment company Dalian Wanda Group acquired the large American film company Legendary Entertainment (which produced Godzilla, Inception and Jurassic World, among others). Wanda's director, one of China's richest men, said the acquisition would make Wanda the world's most profitable film company. The media giant is also behind the construction of a large film city on the east coast, Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, for more than eight billion dollars. Here, Legendary Entertainment's films Great Wall (2017) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) were produced.

The Hollywood industry is dependent on China
The big Hollywood studios are spending more and more money on production and marketing, and are increasingly looking for an international audience. In 2014, the six largest Hollywood studios received more than 70% of their cinema revenue from countries outside North America. In particular, revenues from China have increased significantly. The American film producers can no longer do without the strong Chinese market and therefore go to great lengths to gain access to the largest film market of the future.

Only 34 foreign films are allowed to be shown in China per year, which is why only the biggest Hollywood films can make hopes of entering the market. Alternatively, the film company can share production with China, thereby gaining direct influence. Several Hollywood studios have set up local branches in China in an effort to find Chinese partners. For example, in 2013 (before they were acquired), Legendary Entertainment created Legendary East to circumvent the ceiling on the number of foreign films allowed. The director of Chinese Film Co-Production Company, Zhang Xun, stated during the 2013 American-Chinese Film Summit that "we want films that are strongly interested in Chinese culture; not just one or two scenes", and he continued: "We want to see positive Chinese depictions. "

The foreign films are examined by the Communist Party's central propaganda department and must comply with a number of requirements in order to hope being able to be shown on the Chinese market. The main responsibility of the propaganda department is to "implement the party's propaganda guides".

According to a 2015 U.S. committee report on China's influence on the film industry, China views film as an element of social control.

The requirements for the foreign films are somewhat vague and unpredictable, and the filmmakers are trying in advance to adapt the films so that they hopefully get through the eye of the needle and are able to enter the lucrative Chinese market. The manufacturers try to anticipate the censors' possible objections and, for safety's sake, go far in a China-friendly direction. One would rather have the objections early during the film production than when the film is first finished, as post-editing costs precious time and resources. The film companies therefore collaborate with Chinese censors during the creation process and try to target the films to the preferences of a Chinese audience.

The films must not be defamatory of the Chinese government, the Chinese people and their customs, the country's territorial unity and social stability. According to an internal email correspondence from 2014 at Sony Entertainment, the censorship requirements had been extended to include decadence, divination, hunting and sexuality.

Some films have had a special version for the Chinese audience. Walt Disney Animation Studios' 2016 cartoon Zootropolis, for example, had a panda newscaster in the edition intended for China (in the American edition it is a moose). In several cases, however, it elicited bad publicity, as the film company's knee-jerk reaction to China thereby became too obvious. Most companies therefore prefer to have a single version to suit all markets. The films therefore become China-friendly, whether they are eventually sold to China or not.

The right ethnicity
The otherwise progressive and diversity-honored Hollywood has produced fewer films with black actors since 2012, as Chinese cinema-goers prefer to watch light-skinned Westerners and Asians. Symptomatic of this trend, on the movie poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has, in the Chinese version, had the portrait of the black actor John Boyega greatly diminished, so that one does not notice him so much.

The movie Doctor Strange (2016) is based on Marvel Comics' stories. In the original universe, 'The Ancient One' is a Tibetan mystic, but in the film version the character is played by the Scottish actress Tilda Swinton. Screenwriter Robert Cargill says: "He [The Ancient One] is from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he is Tibetan, then you risk alienating a billion people who think it is pure nonsense, and there's a risk that the Chinese government will say, 'Hey, do you know one of the countries in the world where there are the most cinema-goers? We're not going to show your films since you decided to go political.'

Increasingly, Chinese people are appearing on the cast of the big Hollywood movies, as they seek to give a potential Chinese audience recognizability. In the Star Wars movie Rogue One (2016), the movie features Chinese movie stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen star. Another Chinese movie star, Daniel Wu, starred in the fantasy film Warcraft from 2016. (For the sake of ticket sales, the premiere date was in connection with the Chinese dragon boat festival.)

Chinese products in American films
Advertising Chinese products in the movies (product placement) is a way to woo the Chinese audience without changing the storytelling. In Dark of the Moon (2011), milk from the Chinese manufacturer Shuhua is drunk, even though the scene takes place in the USA. The movie Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) shows a Chinese energy drink in a scene that is supposed to take place in Texas. In Iron Man, Tony Stark has switched phone manufacturers: where he previously had an LG phone, he now uses the cheap Chinese Vivo phone (which cannot be purchased in the US). In Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), the Chinese messenger system QQ is used; seeing the following screen messages: "QQ connection terminated" and "Thank you for using QQ". Chinese milk producer Mengnius' product Moon Milk is also seen in the film.

China-friendly stories
The 1984 film Red Dawn is about a communist occupation of the United States, in which Soviet paratroopers invade the country one morning. A new edition of Red Dawn appeared in 2012, but as the Soviet Union had meanwhile collapsed, the invading Communists were cast as the Chinese. The film was shot in Michigan in 2009. Later, however, potential film distributors became nervous about ruining their business opportunities if they alienated China with this film. The film company MGM therefore made several changes to the film and changed the story so that the paratroopers now came from the economically uninteresting North Korea. Chinese flags and military symbols were digitally removed from the film, and some film sequences were changed and given a new dialogue in line with the new narrative. Despite the expensive post-edits, the film did not enter the Chinese market.

In the movie Gravity (2013), an American space expedition is exposed to a storm of wreckage originating from a Russian shooting down of a missile. The space shuttle, and later also the International Space Station, is destroyed by the wreckage, and the only hope of rescue for the surviving astronaut is to reach a light in the great cosmic darkness: the great (fictional) Chinese space station.

Michael Pillsbury, adviser to the Pentagon and director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Chinese Strategy, says in the book The Hundred-Year Marathon: "The Russians have never sent a missile into one of their own satellites, as the film describes. However, the Chinese did just that in 2007 ". He continues: "The Chinese quite ruthlessly created the largest and most dangerous area in history with space debris, but the Russians are blamed in the film. The misleading portrayal makes the Chinese appear as heroes in Gravity".

In the science fiction film Arrival (2016), twelve mysterious objects appear in different places on the planet. The US Army allies with linguist Louise Banks, who tries to communicate with the alien beings. On the world stage, there is one person who stands apart from the rest: the Chinese general Shang from the People's Liberation Army. He is portrayed as a powerful, energetic, sympathetic and reflective advocate of humanism. A CIA agent says that when Shang does something, at least four other countries follow suit. Shang plays a leading role in the Earth's response to the arrival of the twelve spacecraft. Thanks to the efforts of Banks and Shang, a fruitful collaboration and knowledge sharing is created between the twelve host sites involved on the planet, and the invading spacecraft now disappear as suddenly as they had emerged.

In the James Bond film Skyfall (2012), several scenes had to be cut before the film could be accepted on the Chinese market. In a cut-out scene from Shanghai, Bond enters a lobby and shoots a Chinese security guard standing behind the counter. The villain Raoul Silva says in the film that he has been tortured by Chinese agents. However, this is not apparent from the Chinese subtitles.

Leaked emails from Sony Entertainment provide an insight into their reflections on how they avoided encountering the Chinese censors during the production of the movie Pixels (2015). The science fiction film shows the destruction of several world-famous monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument and the Golden Gate in San Francisco. One wanted to include the Great Wall of China but was worried about whether it would offend. Managers at Sony Entertainment were also concerned about a movie scene where it is being discussed whether it is China that is behind an attack using an unknown technology. In the final film version, the scene is altered so that one now instead suspects Russia, Iran or Google to be behind it. Any reference to China was omitted, including the depiction of an attack on the Great Wall of China.

In the movie World War Z (2013), starring Brad Pitt, a pandemic breaks out, and the infected turn into zombies. In one scene, it is discussed where the infection originates from, and China is pointed out as a probable origin, according to the book original. Managers at Paramount were apprehensive about the scene and therefore urged filmmakers to change the scene by mentioning a country other than China. Hoping to bring the film to the Chinese market, they tried to anticipate the possible objections of Chinese censors and therefore changed the scene so that North Korea is now first mentioned as a possible hotbed, and later it is believed that the virus originated in India. Despite the adaptations, the film did not elicit the mercy of Chinese censors. This may be due to their aversion to horror films, and the fact that Brad Pitt was blacklisted after the film Seven Years in Tibet.

The Chinese agenda
The American PEN points out in a report from the autumn of 2020 that the Chinese censorship results in a system where Hollywood filmmakers themselves adjust their productions without mentioning or protesting censorship. "China is exploiting its great influence on Hollywood politically: by pressuring Hollywood decision-makers to give a clean and positive image of China and its ruling party, and by encouraging Hollywood films to promote messages in line with China's political interests. China's goals is not only to prevent the country's own population from encountering messages that the regime considers harming its interests, although it is admittedly a major element in the structure of its censorship, but the Communist Party wants to actively influence Hollywood in the direction of telling stories that praise China and that benefits its political interests. "