The United States spends about $700 billion a year on military and defense to keep the country safe. For a fraction of that amount, China has been fighting a different war with great success: a war to change American minds from within.
Today, media and entertainment are two major forces that shape the spirit of a society. They not only decide what we know but also how we think. In a sense, media and entertainment determine who we are as Americans and as America.
But we have very little or no defense in these areas. In fact, if you look closely enough, you’ll find the deep infiltration of the Chinese communist regime. Through media and Hollywood, China has injected its standards and filters into the unsuspecting American minds and the minds of our children.
Hollywood or China-wood?
Two decades ago, it was unthinkable that a U.S. celebrity would bow to China for such a comment. Things started to change in 1997 when Hollywood released three movies that treaded on Beijing’s redlines: “Kundun” by Touchstone and “Seven Years in Tibet” by Mandalay Entertainment both portrayed the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) invasion of Tibet in the 1950s, while “Red Corner” by MGM, which starred Richard Gere, presented an unflattering picture of China’s judicial system.
Beijing’s subsequent reactions opened Hollywood’s eyes to how aggressive Beijing’s retaliation can be: All the main actors and directors of the three movies were put on a blacklist, and the studios and their parent companies were banned from doing business in China for the next five years.
The two Tibet-related movies triggered great and vocal support for Tibet in the United States. One after another, celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Selena Gomez were banned by Beijing for openly supporting Tibet or meeting with the Dalai Lama.
But today, it would be impossible for a movie such as “Seven Years in Tibet” to be made by Hollywood. Why? Because much has changed in the past two decades. Then a small market for movies, China has now surpassed the United States to become the largest film market in the world. With $9.2 billion in box office revenue in 2019 from its 69,787 cinema screens, it was about the same size as the United States and Canada combined.
But access to the market isn’t free nor easy. China limits its number of imported films to 34 per year. The CCP’s Central Propaganda Department censors and determines which movies are accepted, and what changes are required. The decision-making is opaque, inconsistent, and can change at the last minute. Censors can approve a film, only to reverse the decision later. It’s also common for senior officials within or outside of the Propaganda Department to veto a previous decision without explanation.
This kind of ambiguity is exactly what Beijing wants, according to a report by PEN America, because movie studios will have to self-censor even harder to stay clear of the invisible line.
Hollywood is willing to bend over backward to stay in line. The top five companies that dominate China’s foreign movie market are multinational corporations whose business interests span beyond movies. Disney, for example, has a 43 percent stake in the Shanghai Disneyland Park, which cost more than $5.5 billion to build.
“So why jeopardize big business ventures for 90 seconds of content that could just as easily be cut?” said UCLA professor Michael Berry in an interview with PEN America.
Cutting and changing scenes to appease Beijing is now standard practice. Here are just two recent examples: In the 2019 “Top Gun” film, a Taiwanese flag patch was removed from Tom Cruise’s jacket; China ordered Mission Impossible 3 to remove scenes taken in Shanghai that showed laundry drying on clotheslines and people playing Mahjong in a shabby building. These portrayals don’t fit into the wealthy “modern China” image the CCP wants to promote, and are said by some Chinese media to be humiliating and an “uglification” of China.
Such compliance is so common that refusing to edit as Beijing commands is newsworthy. Director Quentin Tarantino made entertainment headlines in 2019 when he refused to recut his “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” as per China’s request. But most others wouldn’t take the risk. As a producer told PEN America, “Most people do not burn China, because there’s an expectation of ‘I’ll never work again.’”
After all, even Gere has paid a significant professional price for supporting Tibet. “There are definitely movies that I can’t be in because the Chinese will say, ‘Not with him,’” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
This will only become worse as Hollywood explores joint production with Chinese businesses. This model gives Western studios a higher chance to get approvals, but it also allows China to directly steer the studios to adopt Beijing’s preferred narratives, and indirectly pressure them through Chinese businesses that finance the movies.
The 2014 movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a joint production between Paramount and China, paints U.S. officials in unflattering tones while playing up the selflessness of Chinese characters, particularly in their willingness to defend Hong Kong from an alien threat. This was disturbing to many, given the Hong Kong “Umbrella Movement” protests that happened in the same year. Journalist and editor David Cohen wrote an op-ed calling the movie “A Splendidly Patriotic Film, If You Happen to Be Chinese.”
Studio executives increasingly prefer to build China-flattering plots in the universal versions of movies so the pandering is less obvious, or cut scenes and change plots so that the censorship isn’t as visible. This means China’s censorship not only determines what the Chinese people can see but also has a major influence on what the rest of the world can see.
Such censorship is depriving the U.S. audience of important information and messages. In 2013, Paramount Studios executives demanded the movie “World War Z” change the original plot in which the zombie virus originated in China to pass through Chinese censorship. But the source novel’s author, Max Brooks, was trying to send a message with this plot.
After the outbreak of the CCP virus, Brooks explained in an interview with Bill Maher last April that he deliberately chose China as the epicenter of his fictional virus because the undetected spread of viruses likely happens “in a country where there’s no free press. … in a country like China, that censors the press and also censors its own citizens on social media, it creates a dark space ripe for conspiracy theories.”
Whether Americans can receive such insightful messages now depends largely on Beijing’s mercy.
But the greater effect on the movie industry isn’t even what’s being changed, but what didn’t happen. Movies that the CCP would frown at have very little chance of getting off the ground, and its long list of “sensitive topics” is growing. As Hollywood increasingly assimilates with Chinese propaganda, the movie industry will have even fewer options, and more stories will be left untold.
Can Americans accept that the CCP dictates how stories are told in the United States? How will the CCP norms, narratives, and ideology embedded in American-made movies change our country and the rest of the world? As the threat from China becomes more and more clear, Americans should ask these questions with a strong sense of urgency.
Who Controls What You Hear?
Media is often said to be the conscience of society. It’s supposed to be a realistic mirror of our world and provide a shared set of facts on which members of society can form their own opinions.
You can’t buy conscience, but you can definitely spend enough to win the goodwill of some journalists. The CCP has used many small favors such as free China trips and luxurious dinner parties to turn and keep U.S. journalists friendly.
A recent National Pulse report revealed that at least one leading CCP propaganda group has invited more than 120 reporters from about 50 U.S. media outlets on paid junkets to China in exchange for favorable coverage. When in China, the journalists were arranged to visit key cities for “cultural tours,” meet with government officials, and visit businesses to “see first-hand (China’s) developments in various fields.”
The group that arranged these trips is China–United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). CUSEF was founded and is funded by Tung Chee-hwa, the first Hong Kong chief executive under the CCP, according to an investigative report (pdf) by the U.S.-China Security Review Commission. Tung is now vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the central organ of the Party’s United Front system.
The United Front is behind many uncovered espionage cases. The mission of the United Front is to “co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” according to the report. In plain English, they exist to change free countries into allies.
Who accepted these trips? A CUSEF newsletter (pdf) from 2009 and 2010 showed a long list, including current and former senior executives, editors, reporters, and analysts from CNN, The New York Times, The Associated Press, NPR, Chicago Tribune, Vox, and many other major media outlets.
China seems happy about the investment (at least a few thousand dollars per person). In 2009 alone, at least 28 favorable media placements were generated as a result of the visits. The CUSEF proudly included in its newsletter one example to showcase its accomplishments.
These trips have continued. In 2019, the same PR company arranged trips to China for Vox, Slate, the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe, and Huffington Post.
Where Is All This Leading?
Many episodes in history can provide insights into the future. For example, more than 2,000 years ago, the Qin state spent 300,000 units of gold, roughly $2.5 million in today’s terms, to bribe senior officials and key influencers of six enemy states. This strategy allowed Qin to defeat the six states in just 10 years, an otherwise impossible mission. The kings and officials of the six states were mostly exiled or killed, while the king of Qin, Ying Zheng, became the first emperor of China.
America has built muscles strong enough to resist any attack from the outside, but the virus of greed and corruption will consume us from within. Until we as individuals and businesses find the moral values and the backbone to resist the CCP money, this country will be extremely vulnerable.
Pingping Yu has been a writer, translator, and researcher for The Epoch Times since 2007. She covers a variety of topics related to China, with a strong focus on human rights, economy, and business.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.