In 1967, the science fiction movie Battle Beneath the Earth portrayed the Communist Chinese as evil enemies who launched a plot to use advanced earth boring machines to dig through the Earth’s core to reach the US, where they attempted to place atomic bombs beneath American cities. Since then, most movies have turned to the Russians for their evil villains. In the 1984 movie Red Dawn, it was the Soviets and their Cuban and Nicaraguan allies.
So, when the sequel to Red Dawn was released in 2010, I assumed it would just be a remake of the original film. To my surprise, the attackers were North Koreas. Whoa, who in the world would ever believe that North Korea would be capable of launching an airborne invasion of the US? Were the producers stupid? No, they weren’t. The plot was originally written with the attack coming from China, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would have none of that. So, the movie was changed in post-production. Even so, it was never released in China, movie producer MGM went bankrupt, and the movie turned out to be a box office failure.
Hold on, are you telling me that the Chinese are controlling Hollywood by censoring American movies? Yes. It turns out that China is the second largest market for box office revenue and Hollywood wants as much as it can get. American movies earned $3.2 billion in China in 2018, with Disney accounting for nearly a quarter of that with $700 million. But China has quotas for foreign films, censors content they do not like, and is even willing to partially fund films they do like. You can bet that the CCP isn’t listed along with the other producers when they fund a movie production.
The last time a major Hollywood studio made a movie that presented Chinese government aggression was in 1997 with Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. The Chinese government responded by slapping a five-year ban on Columbia TriStar, a response that cast a chill over the U.S. movie industry. Other Brad Pitt movies, such as World War Z (2013) were also banned and he was personally denied access to enter China.
Instead, Hollywood has fallen for the money by self censoring and allowing the CCP to make changes to scripts and cast. According to Axios, “They are removing content that they worry could upset the Chinese government even before actually proposing it to the Chinese government. And there is pressure to include content that is more flattering to Beijing.” What does China object to? To start, the three T’s: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. But it goes beyond those sensitive topics.
Any movie that Richard Gere makes is not going to be shown in China, He promoted the cause of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan independence, and the Buddhist religion. Chinese displeasure with him denied hundreds of millions of dollars to Hollywood studios. So, guess who’s not in a major Hollywood blockbuster, and hasn’t been in the last 20 years? Richard Gere. In 1993, Gere was banned from being an Academy Award presenter after he denounced the Chinese government while announcing the nominees. In 2007, Gere called for the boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to put pressure on China to make Tibet independent. Donald Trump has aggressively targeted China, but in 2016 Gere supported Hillary Clinton for president. If you believe that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” maybe Trump would have been a better ally.
Censorship of Hollywood movies is not just censorship of movies that are shown in the Chinese mainland. It’s also the censorship of movies that are shown to American audiences or the addition of themes that make China look good. Here are some examples.
2012 (2009): Humanity is saved by Chinese-built life-saving arks. Thank you China!
Men in Black 3 (2012): Censors removed scenes that they deemed offensive. No big deal, I guess.
Looper (2012): Writers changed the future global capital from Paris to Shanghai. Apparently, China is destined for global leadership.
Gravity (2013): An American astronaut survives by getting to the Chinese space station. Thank you again China!
The Martian (2015): An American astronaut is rescued after an American resupply rocket blows up but the Chinese offer their rocket to save the US mission. Thank you so much China–we love you and you are apparently much more competent than NASA!
Doctor Strange (2016): The comic book and script for the movie “Doctor Strange” had a Tibetan character, but the studio changed it to a Celtic character in order not to acknowledge that such a thing as a Tibetan exists. China would prefer that Tibet, and of course Richard Gere, be erased from all public discourse. Besides, screenwriter Robert Cargill said the comic book character of the Ancient One was just “a racist stereotype” anyway.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2018): This film had to be edited because Captain Sao Feng, played by Chow Yun-fat, apparently demonized the Chinese. Again, no Chinese villains allowed!
21 and Over (2020): A different version of this movie was created for Chinese audiences. In China, it is a story about a boy who leaves China, gets corrupted by our wayward, Western partying ways and goes back to China a better person. In the Chinese version, the movie starts off at a Chinese college campus and returns there at the end of the film after what turns out to be an ill-conceived stint as a transfer student in the U.S. Those scenes do not exist in the US version. Thank you Hollywood–what responsible Chinese parent would ever want their kids to leave China for the USA?
Top Gun Maverick (coming soon in 2020): The Taiwanese and Japanese flag patches, on Tom Cruise’s jacket in the original Top Gun movie were gone in the 2019 trailer for the sequel. The Taiwan patch was replaced with an ambiguous patch featuring the same colors. The Japan patch was replaced with a red triangle on a white background. Obviously, they are too similar to not be intentional changes.
Space Jam 2 (scheduled for 2021): This sequel to the first movie, which starred Michael Jordan, will feature Lakers’ basketball star LeBron James. I doubt there will be anything in this movie that the Chinese don’t like considering how LeBron James has already taken side with the Chinese regime and denounced criticism of its authoritarian tactics. He drew outrage when he blasted Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey for tweeting support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, calling Morey “misinformed.” Morey’s tweet had provoked a harsh response from the Chinese. TV broadcasts of the Lakers and Nets exhibition games in China were canceled, local sponsorship deals were voided and various fan events scrapped. Hong Kong protestors responded to LeBron James by tweeting: “Has he been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party’s fake news or has he been bought?” and “Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights, but LeBron James supports totalitarianism?” Or just the money he gets from Nike, the NBA, and Hollywood? I guess Black Lives Matter but Chinese Lives Don’t Matter.
But the Chinese censors don’t always win. In some cases, there is just no way to make a successful film while caving to their demands.
The Karate Kid (2010): In 2009, Sony Pictures and its partner, the China Film Group, submitted their script for “The Karate Kid” to China’s censors, and dutifully changed parts of the story to suit them. But the finished film was rejected because film bureaucrats were unhappy that its villain was Chinese. There is just no satisfying the commies. Apparently there are no Chinese bad guys. Never. Ever. I wonder how Disney had to compromise on its new movie Mulan into Chinese theaters.
The Laundromat (2019): Since Netflix does not do business in China, they had nothing to fear from a film that showed a Chinese government organ harvesting program that killed prisoners for transplant money. It also showed corruption in the CCP, although, in the end, the Chinese arrested the corrupt leader and his wife, a silver lining to a show that the CCP certainly would have censored had they been able.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): The movie was “pulled from China’s movie release schedule only a week before the film was slated to be released within the country, reportedly in response to the movie’s insufficiently heroic depiction of Bruce Lee.” Director Quentin Tarantino “refused to recut the film to appease China’s National Film Administration, nixing the movie’s chances of a China release.” Screenwriter Howard Rodman, a former head of the Writers Guild of America, was quoted as saying: “When the story of a director refusing to participate is newsworthy, you know that this is a pervasive phenomenon.”
South Park (2019): Two days after South Park was banned in China, in response to criticism of the Chinese response to Hong Kong protests, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone served up Hollywood’s most defiant rebuke of the communist government in decades with the words “Fuck the Chinese government!” Meanwhile, Apple dropped the Richard Gere drama Bastards from its planned Apple TV+ service. Apple had to pay a penalty to do so, but it just has too much money at stake in China. Shame on you Apple! I think Trey Parker has officially picked up the flag from the fallen Richard Gere.
You can find a list of many other banned, partially banned, unreleased, and edited films on this Wikipedia page of Film Censorship in China.
So, what can be done about this? A July 2020 94-page report by the US Attorney General William Barr, titled “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing: The US Film Industry and Chinese Government Influence,” criticized the film industry and called for transparency around film censoring. Perhaps amending the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to include censorship would be a good start. People will still try and get around it with so much money at stake, but it will at least prevent producers and directors from submitting projects to the Chinese censors and allowing censors to be on set, and will give them pause before they self sensor.
But according to writer Scott Moore, any pushback the studios could offer would go only so far. “They dub it all anyway, so whatever dialogue we all wrote that’s in English, we don’t actually know what the Chinese version says.” Seriously? Does that means the studios are actually losing control of their intellectual property when they turn a movie over to China for “modification.” Or is that just a copout as they turn a blind eye to China?
Unfortunately, there are apologists in the US who actually think this is OK. According to a 2013 article in “The Atlantic,” “There’s no point in ramping up anti-Chinese sentiment here in the States or in angering Chinese audiences abroad…. Given the slow pace of social progress in Hollywood, more overseas investment might offer the quickest route to a more diverse film industry.” Ouch–Bad America! Good China. Don’t you know the Chinese are offering us diversity and social progress, so we should be happy about it?
I’ve always found the Russians to be the perfect villains. They are like Wiley E. Coyote. That is, theoretically very smart, but ultimately unable to prevent their efforts from blowing up in their faces. The Chinese Communists are more like the Siamese cats from the Aristokats. Also smart, but more sneaky and inherently evil (I know–so racist!).
The CCP is more likely to successfully undermine democracy and the entire western world. But maybe the Chinese are simply misunderstood and just want to be loved. They are building up their political, economic and military influence to make sure they can love us to death, so why can’t we just love them back? Just don’t ask if they are loved in Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Hong Kong, assuming those places still exist.