Universal Studios Beijing Opens Amid Concerns Over China Influencing Western Entertainment

Universal Studios Beijing Opens Amid Concerns Over China Influencing Western Entertainment
People walk in front of the trademark globe at Universal Studios Beijing city-walk on Sept. 23, 2021. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Danella Pérez Schmieloz
News Analysis

Universal Studios inaugurated a resort in Beijing on Sept. 20, after a two-decade wait, amid concerns over the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence on the Western entertainment industry.

The CCP aims to create a positive image of itself by influencing Hollywood through large investments and the potential of entering, or being restricted from, the massive Chinese market.

NBCUniversal’s Universal Parks & Resorts holds a minority stake of 30 percent in the project. Five state-run companies own the remaining majority through the Beijing Shouhuan Cultural Tourism Investment Company.

The resort—Universal’s largest and its fifth globally—is the first major resort for Beijing, while other major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong already have Disney resorts.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said during a Q3 Earnings Call in 2017 that Universal Beijing’s revenue could be “well over $1 billion in operating cash flow” per year.

The project was originally put forward 20 years ago by the Beijing Tourism Group. Yet Universal Studios only announced the development in 2014 at an estimated cost of $3.3 billion. The initial investment was later increased to $6.5 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.
According to a report by PEN America, a non-profit group focused on defending freedom of expression, studio parent companies’ investment and stakes in these theme parks serve as a form of business pressure that induces self-censorship in Hollywood. The CCP’s influence in Hollywood is a soft power push “distinctive for the degree of control it seeks to exert on all manner global of representations and depictions of itself as a rising global superpower,” according to the report.
The CCP “is trying to reshape the global information environment,” the Guardian reported in 2018. “The aim is to influence public opinion overseas in order to nudge foreign governments into making policies favorable toward China’s Communist Party.”

Censorship is the CCP’s weapon of choice in Hollywood productions. China’s lucrative film market is coveted by Hollywood, as it reported $9.1 billion in box office revenue in 2019, according to IMDB. Further, the CCP limits foreign movie imports to 34 per year.

PEN America cites UCLA Professor Michael Berry saying, “lots of these broadcast and media companies have their hands in many different pies, so why jeopardize big business ventures for 90 seconds of content that could just as easily be cut?”

“Instituting self-censorship is the way to go, especially as the big mainstream blockbusters need China,” Berry said in the PEN report. “Hollywood has internalized these self-censorship mechanisms.”

Through self-censorship filmmakers avoid mentioning issues that could anger the Chinese regime. Restricted topics include Taiwan, Tibet, Falun Gong, Xinjiang, or anything that might paint China in a bad light.

However, the CCP makes other unclear censorship demands. PEN America asserts this lack of regulatory transparency causes writers and producers to be “extra cautious in self-censoring for fear of crossing an invisible line.”

For example, in “Doctor Strange” (2016) filmmakers took the original comics’ Ancient One—the main character’s mentor, who was a Tibetan man—and rewrote it as a Celtic woman, allegedly to avoid losing access to the Chinese film market.

Also, the “Top Gun” sequel removed the Taiwanese flag from Maverick’s leather bomber jacket, in contrast with the one he sports in the original film.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.