The real menace to free speech is China not North Korea

The financial clout of the China means that the communist party’s censors now hold sway over much of what you see at the cinema.

A still from the 2012 remake of Red Dawn. The army invading the US was originally intended to be Chinese but became North Korean in the editing room.

 

In a fascinating article for Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish suggests that the sound and fury regarding North Korea’s efforts to have the Interview pulled distract from a bigger problem regarding free speech in Hollywood.

No major studio today would dare greenlight a film that would be that offensive to the Chinese Communist Party: The financial costs could be immense. A film studio that was even known to have publicly floated an idea such as this could expect to be effectively blacklisted from working with Beijing — and China is where Hollywood studios will make an increasingly large percentage of their money in coming years.

China’s box office revenue surged to $3.57 billion in 2013, a 27 percent increase from 2012. The country is already the world’s second-largest film market, and the most important source of growth for Hollywood releases: “Box office receipts in the U.S. are sliding nearly 20 percent compared to last year, while China’s is booming in 2014, up 33 percent in the first quarter alone,” according to Yahoo Finance. “Every mainstream studio is keenly aware of not offending the Chinese market, because it’s become such an important revenue stream,” Tom Nunan, a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television, told Bloomberg.

Chinese film studios are increasingly seen as the gatekeepers by which Hollywood can enter this 1.4 billion-person market. Ryan Kavanaugh, the chief executive of the media company Relativity Media, has successfully made co-productions in China. But he noted recently that one of the differences between making films in the United States and China is that, in the latter, films have to be “meaningful both to the government and the Chinese people.” In other words, don’t offend Beijing.

Consider the case of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which several years ago released a remake of Red Dawn, the 1984 cult classic about Soviet, Cuban, and Nicaraguan troops invading the United States. Originally, the script had Chinese soldiers tromping through the United States — but the producers switched them to North Koreans. “The movie was changed because we couldn’t get distribution for the movie from any of the distributors here,” Red Dawn producer Tripp Vinson told USA Today. “They didn’t want to offend the Chinese, I am assuming.”

Or consider The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which Chinese censors tweaked before release: Producers were reportedly cautioned that the ancient ruler in the film wasn’t allowed to resemble China’s liberator and dictator Mao Zedong. Or Iron Man 3, a film in which Chinese government officials were reportedly allowed onto movie sets to monitor the filming and ensure plot lines wouldn’t offend Beijing. Or World War Z, a 2013 movie based on a popular book of the same name, where a zombie epidemic starts in China and spreads throughout the world. According to the entertainment website The Wrap, the producers dropped the reference to China as the source of the plague.

After Sony cancelled the release of The Interview, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the studio, saying, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” Yet in the case of China, this has been happening for years: Hollywood studios have opted to censor their films to appease a foreign political party. Hatred — and North Korea — have nothing to do with it.

This points to an uncomfortable reality about current geopolitical struggles. The Chinese Communist Party is much less ideologically rigid than its fallen Soviet counterpart. That makes life much more bearable for the citizens of China who no longer have to endure the nightmare of being test subjects for an experiment in building utopia. It does, however, allow Beijing to compete in areas Moscow never could. For example, the CCP can make compromises with Hollywood studios which allow it to buy the ability to project soft power using their output. This is I think an indicator that whilst authoritarian capitalism may be a less destructive ideology than communism, it’s also likely to prove a more tenacious adversary for liberal democracy.

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