Hollywood has increasingly capitulated to the Chinese regime’s pressure to censor its films, threatening freedom of speech, according to a new report by rights group PEN America.
The report, based partly on interviews with industry insiders, said that Beijing has used the allure of China’s massive film market to get Hollywood studios to censor or alter movies—either through direct censorship requests or increasingly through voluntary self-censorship.
This year, the Chinese cinema market is projected to overtake the U.S. box office, which in 2019 stood at $11.4 billion. Beijing allows only 34 international films to be screened in the country each year.
“Beijing has sent a clear message to the filmmaking world, that filmmakers who criticize China will be punished, but that those who play ball with its censorship strictures will be rewarded,” states the report “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing,” released on Aug. 5.
“The Chinese Communist Party, in fact, holds major sway over whether a Hollywood movie will be profitable or not—and studio executives know it.”
The report canvassed numerous instances of Hollywood self-censoring in an attempt to placate the regime. For instance, the Taiwanese flag was removed from Tom Cruise’s jacket in the upcoming “Top Gun” sequel, and a scene from the 2013 zombie movie “World War Z” was changed to remove a reference to China being the origin of the virus that spawns the zombie outbreak.
“While some of these alterations may seem minor—the cutting of a Taiwanese flag here or the removal of a minor plot point there—cumulatively such censoriousness cuts against artistic and cultural freedom, silences dissenting voices and can skew the global perceptions that are shaped by powerful films,” James Tager, lead author and deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN, said in a statement.
The warning came after U.S. Attorney General William Barr last month criticized Hollywood for “kowtowing” to the communist regime for the sake of profits.
“Every year at the Academy Awards, Americans are lectured about how this country falls short of Hollywood’s ideals of social justice,” Barr said on July 16. “But Hollywood now regularly censors its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party—the world’s most powerful violator of human rights.”
Pressure from Beijing was not confined to films destined for the Chinese market. The report quoted Stanley Rosen, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California, who warned that the regime “will focus on everything that has a China component in it.”
“Don’t think that if you’re doing something that’s not intended for China, that’s an indie film meant for a small market, that China won’t notice and that it won’t hurt your blockbuster film. It will,” Rosen said.
One producer, who worked on several projects with Chinese backing, told PEN, “Most people do not burn China, because there’s an expectation of ‘I’ll never work again.'”
PEN noted that many producers and screenwriters spoke to the group anonymously, fearing financial and professional reprisals if they openly criticized the regime’s growing influence in Hollywood.
The report also states that joint productions between U.S. and Chinese studios—which allow Hollywood another way into the Chinese market—have censorship as a built-in requirement. These co-productions have allowed the regime to advance its political message, it said. For instance, the 2019 animated film “Abominable” shows a map featuring the “nine-dash line,” which the regime uses to indicate its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing’s claims are disputed by several southeast Asian countries and were ruled unlawful by an international court in 2016.
The growing Chinese investment in Hollywood also has brought indirect pressure to please Chinese censors. “Investors have strong incentives to make sure that their Hollywood partners and the Central Propaganda Department see eye-to-eye,” the report states.