According to a new report from PEN America, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been tampering with our great escape: a two-hour movie.
Why would a major government care what films hit the silver screen (or streaming)? Movies are great vehicles for telling stories. Their scripts can create strong emotions of joy, sadness and excitement. They can also serve as propaganda.
Under the ruling CCP, the Chinese government has been making huge investments in having stories told that will favorably impress their citizens as well as those in other countries. They want to depress negative imagery while supporting positive ones. The manically fussy CCP understands that images create ideas. And ideas have consequences.
The China movie market is one of the most exclusive in the world. Only 34 non-Chinese films are allowed in the country each year. The only other way to get a film into China is to partner with a Chinese production company. Alternatively, obtaining one of the 34 slots requires the studio to have a pristine record when it comes to portraying the country on film.
In the 2013 blockbuster “Gravity,” heroine Sandra Bullock is dangerously adrift in space. She is rescued and returned to Earth by accessing a Chinese space station. Thirty-three slots left. In the 2012 remake of “Red Dawn,” the villain initially was the Chinese People’s Liberation Army — at least it was before Sony Pictures sheepishly swapped out the film’s villain with North Korea.
When China’s Central Propaganda Department decides what films make it into the country, it considers the film script, the political stances of the cast and crew, and other content the studio has released. As studios clamor to squeeze every red cent from a film, the process has created a Hollywood culture of self-censoring best described in the new book “Feeding the Dragon” by Hollywood producer Chris Fenton (Looper, “Iron Man 3”).
I have no clue what films will win Best Picture in the next few years, but it’s safe to predict they won’t be about China’s repression of democracy. Any movie with scenes referencing the Hong Kong protests or simply showing Chinese people upset with their government may get awards at Sundance, but it won’t become a commercially viable film.
China is a box office behemoth. They control more screens worldwide than any other entity. In 2016, they bought the Legendary Entertainment production company for $3.5 billion. Legendary has a huge footprint in Hollywood. As an actor, if you appear in a film with negative Chinese overtones, you’ll have a harder time being cast in a Legendary movie.
Chinese interests own or control more than 2,400 American businesses. One of them is AMC, America’s largest theater chain. Theaters make much of their profits off inflated drink and snack prices. Query: Did the CCP invest in AMC to corner the market for buttered popcorn? Or is this another choke point to ensure the “Seven Years in Tibet” sequel isn’t in production?
China is taking advantage of America’s lax regulation system to buy up American business and exert soft power in a lopsided cultural exchange. The film industry is only half of it. The Red Dragon has also grabbed broadcast opportunities through the leasing or purchasing of radio stations across the country.
In the Washington, D.C., market, China gained broadcast control of WAGE radio in Northern Virginia. It’s now known as WCRW (the CRW stands for China Radio Washington). WAGE originally provided local news using a 5,000-watt signal AM station — barely strong enough to reach beyond the boundaries of rural Leesburg, Virginia.
After the Chinese stepped in to lease the station’s airwaves, they invested in boosting the signal 10-fold — wide enough to reach congressional offices. The station programming also developed biased content regarding China’s man-made islands that have been weaponized in the South China Sea. This was not an isolated incident.
The radio station is a member of a network of 30 stations in the U.S. as well as in 13 other countries. The man behind the front leasing for Chinese radio broadcasts also runs the Chinese American Film Festival, which builds bridges between the Chinese government and Hollywood. And then there are the 30 million households that can receive English TV news produced by the China Global Television Network. What the Chinese are providing isn’t perspective, it’s propaganda on a global scale.
The CCP Belt and Road Initiative is another clear example of the country’s hunger for worldwide influence. The announced intent was to re-establish the ancient Silk Road that had joined land masses for trading in silk. The new plan attempts at creating deeper “ties” in countries with emerging markets by leveraging CCP investments in foreign infrastructure.
The 2013 project has grown significantly in scope. It’s seemingly a win-win arrangement, but as the old adage goes, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” China can quash anti-CCP rhetoric or alliances after becoming a landlord over developing countries’ power plants and shipping ports. These projects come at a cost that the host nations can never afford to pay back. This CCP debt-trap-diplomacy results in a network of countries with compromised independence. Voting patterns by Third World countries in international bodies are one of the consequences.
Chinese influence isn’t a single-faceted issue. It’s a nine-headed Hydra. And the heads extend far beyond these examples. It’s a bipartisan issue that’s about national — if not global — security. Go to ChinaOwnsUs.com for a close up of how the Sleeping Dragon has been taking advantage of a naive Western world.
• Rick Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington, D.C., and manages the website www.Chinaownsus.com.