President Donald Trump has spent a significant amount of time talking about our trade balance with China and how American businesses have shipped jobs overseas. However, the real story may be about our stories.
I’m speaking of Hollywood: the industry that has done more to promote and export American culture than any government program ever could. But that could be changing.
Few Americans realize that a Chinese company, Dalían Wanda Group, is the world’s largest cinema operator (the company owns AMC Theaters and Hoyts Cinema). Even fewer probably realize that this same Chinese company owns Legendary Entertainment (Jurassic World and Interstellar)—and that their plans include the acquisition of one of the “Big Six” movie studios.
It doesn’t take the imagination of a La La Land auteur to envision the potential negative consequences.
Last September, 16 members of Congress sent a letter to the head of the Government Accountability Office, asking this question: “Should the definition of national security be broadened to address concerns about propaganda and control of the media and ‘soft power’ institutions?” And they’re not alone in their concern. A clandestine group called “Wolverine Entertainment” created a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Chinese influence in Hollywood.
While there are reasonable concerns about China exporting overt propaganda via their increasing control (through a private company) of production and dissemination, we are already witnessing a less-paranoid scenario: self-censorship in Hollywood in pursuit of profits.
Hollywood is understandably interested in reaching an audience of more than a billion Chinese consumers, and China’s increased media presence is already affecting the types of movies that are green-lighted. As the Washington Post reported, “the Chinese government and its support of censorship now has a surprisingly big hand in shaping the movies that Americans make and watch. Films like ‘Transformers IV,’ ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ ‘Looper,’ ‘Gravity,’ ‘Iron Man 3’ and many more appear to have adapted their plots to woo Chinese censors and audiences.”
Comedian Stephen Colbert has mockingly named this phenomenon the “Pander Express.” But he wasn’t joking when he said that “It’s only natural for American movie makers to try to please the cultural gatekeepers of the Chinese government.”
In The Martian, China saves Matt Damon—a plot point that spurred Colbert’s commentary. In fairness to the filmmakers, the Chinese involvement tracks well with the book’s narrative. However, this likely made for a nice selling point when it came time to pitch the film to investors.
Interestingly, Damon is now starring in a Chinese production called The Great Wall. As Forbes contributor Scott Mendelson notes, “the entire arc of the movie is watching a white American realize that [the] Chinese army and the Chinese culture is [sic] inherently superior.” He continued: “It’s amusing to see a Chinese/American blockbuster where the would-be virtues of western individualism are all-but-villainized.”
What we are seeing is a feedback loop where American movie producers are attempting to appease the Chinese market. Why else would the remake of Red Dawn voluntarily swap villains, replacing the Chinese with North Koreans?
Part of the reason for this is that there is a lot of competition, not merely to reach China’s large population of moviegoers but also because China has a quota for how many foreign films they allow in. This might change. According to a recent report, “government officials and industry representatives from China and the U.S. meet to renegotiate trade terms later this month… .”
But who is empowered to negotiate such a deal? “This is exactly why General [Michael] Flynn is in trouble,” a film producer, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from studio executives, told me. “It is against the law for American citizens to negotiate deals with other countries for this very reason—these deals could have a catastrophic impact on the American economy [speaking here of unionized movie crews] and the best and brightest example of our First Amendment to the world.”
It is highly unlikely that anyone will face prosecution for violating the Logan Act, but the notion that a single entity could own both movie studios and theaters might be seen as a violation of anti-trust laws.
Regardless, concerns about incipient propaganda and censorship are the big story. The media we create and consume inform our perceptions about life. Stories matter. Narratives help develop our worldviews; over time, these narratives could even influence our decisions.
This is why Joe Biden believes Will & Grace “did more to educate the American public [about marriage equality] more than almost anything anybody has done so far.” It is why The Cosby Show gets credit for helping elect Barack Obama. This is also why some people worry about violence in movies. People who argue that media doesn’t inform our worldview can never fully explain why businesses spend so much money on advertising.
For better or worse (and sometimes both), popular culture changes our perception. So what happens if a few generations of Americans are fed a steady diet of films portraying the Chinese as heroic and superior? American public opinion is eventually swayed.
Losing jobs to China is a standard talking point for protectionist politicians, but preserving culture is hardly mentioned.