Hollywood’s Great Leap Backward on Free Expression

Beijing moves to co-opt the American film industry as it seeks to penetrate the world’s largest market.

Two people walk down a path next to a waterfront with tall buildings in the background.
Two policemen patrol the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s own Hollywood Walk of Fame that features celebrities in the city’s film industry. (Tim Chong / Reuters)

Among the freedoms afforded to Hong Kong citizens after Britain gave up control in 1997 were freedom of speech and of the press. The result was a vibrant publishing industry that has produced a dizzying array of books, journals, newspapers, and magazines addressing every aspect of mainland China’s history, politics, and society. Indeed, without the publishers of Hong Kong, the world would know a lot less about China than it does—and the same is true of the thousands of mainlanders who, until recently, flocked to such popular Hong Kong bookstores as Causeway Bay and the People’s Recreation Community.

Today these bookstores are gone, along with nearly all of Hong Kong’s independent publishers. The courageous men and women who struggled to keep them alive have been effectively silenced. This crackdown, along with the many other issues that have brought 2 million protesters into the streets of Hong Kong, reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive efforts to bring the former British colony into line with President Xi Jinping’s 2017 decree that all forms of media would be consolidated and placed under the direct control of the Central Propaganda Department.

The fate of the Hong Kong booksellers has caused an outcry around the world, with independent news outlets and free-speech advocates warning of a return to totalitarianism. “It’s an attack on the publishing industry from all aspects,” declared Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch in a recent New York Times article.

This outcry is wholly justified. But as a longtime observer of a different medium that has also been losing ground to China’s censors, I have to wonder: Why isn’t there a similar outcry about China’s mounting attack on the film industry, not just in Hong Kong but also in the United States?

Over the years, the U.S. government has often praised and defended Hollywood films as a key component of American soft power—that is, as a storytelling medium that can, without engaging in blatant propaganda, convey American ideals, including free expression itself, to foreign populations around the world. But Hollywood has long since abandoned that role. Indeed, not since the end of World War II have the studios cooperated with Washington in furthering the nation’s ideals. Instead, the relationship today is purely commercial—on both sides. For example, Hollywood frequently enlists Washington’s help in fighting piracy and gaining access to foreign markets. But even while providing that help, Washington refrains from asking Hollywood to temper its more negative portrayals of American life, politics, and global intentions. (The exception is the Department of Defense, which insists on approving the script of every film produced with its assistance.)

Things are different in China. In that country, which is fast becoming the world’s largest and most important movie market, the ruling Communist Party exercises no such restraint. On the contrary, Beijing has a very clear idea of how a film industry should operate—namely, as an essential part of the effort to bring public opinion in alignment with the party’s ideological worldview. To that end, Beijing has been using Hollywood’s insatiable need for investment, and its vaulting ambition to reach a potential audience of 1.4 billion people, to draw it into China’s orbit.

This summer, some industry watchers objected when the trailer for the forthcoming Top Gun: Maverick—a sequel financed in part by the Chinese firm Tencent—omitted the Japanese and Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s jacket. But over the past 20 years, most news stories about the Hollywood-China relationship—for instance, recent reports about the negative impact of the U.S.-China trade war on Hollywood’s bottom line—have been skewed more toward Hollywood’s active efforts to penetrate the huge Chinese market than to its passive acceptance of China’s increasingly heavy-handed censorship.

That censorship is increasing because, in keeping with President Xi’s decree, every film released in China must now be vetted not only by the Central Propaganda Department but also (depending on its subject matter) by the Ministry of State Security, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Public Security, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and numerous other bureaucratic entities.

Hollywood has plenty of experience with censorship. In 1915, before the fledgling studios had even moved to Los Angeles, the U.S. Supreme Court defined the new medium of film to be “a business, pure and simple.” That decision exposed movies to government censorship, prompting the industry’s newly formed trade association, then called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, to create the Production Code that shaped the content of movies from the 1930s until the current age-based system replaced it in the ’60s. Only in 1952 did the high court afford film the protection of the First Amendment.

Today, Hollywood is the freest film industry on earth, but only enjoys that freedom fully in the United States. In most other countries, from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, a government body euphemistically called a “film-classification board” must approve every film, foreign and domestic, before it can be shown in theaters. Thus, Hollywood has been negotiating with foreign censors for as long as it has been exporting films—about 100 years.

Yet for all that time, the compromises made by Hollywood to get films into foreign markets have not been seen as problematic, even by its critics. Historically, the more profitable markets—the ones Hollywood cared about—were in democratic countries, where the film-classification boards operated under the rule of law. The changes they demanded, if any, were typically modest. In authoritarian countries, by contrast, the vetting process tended to be corrupt, opaque, and subject to all sorts of hidden political pressures. But because these markets were generally not lucrative, Hollywood rarely bothered with them. As a Hollywood talent agent once remarked to me, “Who cares about North Korea? They don’t buy our movies.”

China has broken this mold. Simultaneously the world’s most profitable and censorious market, China has led Hollywood down the path of submission to a state censorship apparatus whose standards are as murky and unpredictable as those of most democratic countries are clear and consistent. In the words of a 2016 guide to film producers aspiring to work in the People’s Republic: “China and its one-party government currently lack … clear guidelines and standards. As such, it’s difficult to know whether or not a proposed project may fall afoul of the censors, whose whimsy seems to be determined in large part by the higher ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—an organization for which projecting the image of a stable society is considered paramount to preserving its hold on power.”

Fundamentally, the two parties to the Hollywood-China relationship have different priorities. To be sure, both are interested in profit. But for China, profit is just one goal. Another, more important concern is to acquire enough Hollywood-style talent and expertise to build a world-class Chinese entertainment industry that can compete successfully with Hollywood at the global box office—and expand Chinese cultural influence around the world.

Again, Hollywood has focused far more narrowly on business. And that focus has been reinforced as Hollywood has stubbornly resisted other countries’ efforts to engage in cultural protectionism. It took decades for the U.S. Supreme Court to change the legal status of film from “a business, pure and simple” to cultural expression deserving First Amendment protection. It is therefore ironic that, when faced with foreign governments lobbying the World Trade Organization to curb Hollywood’s dominance of their film markets, the standard American response has been to bluster that film is a commodity like any other, and that to define it as cultural expression is to violate the sacred principle of free trade.

In early 2017, Beijing’s strategy of working with Hollywood to enhance China’s cultural influence culminated in the release of the biggest Sino-American co-production ever: a $150 million special-effects extravaganza called The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and helmed by Zhang Yimou, China’s foremost director. Produced by NBCUniversal and three Chinese partners at a state-of-the-art studio in Qingdao, The Great Wall was the third stage in a process by which Hollywood went from exporting U.S.-made films into China, to co-producing films with China in America, to co-producing films with China in China. At each stage, the American producers received a greater share of the revenue—and submitted to a greater degree of control by the Chinese authorities.

If The Great Wall had turned out to be the massive hit everyone was expecting, this process might have continued. But The Great Wall was not a hit. It was a massive flop—in China, America, and everywhere else. Since then, the relationship has been going a bit sour. As China has pulled back from major co-productions with U.S. studios, there has been a migration of individual film professionals, including not just actors but also hundreds of “below-the-line” workers (cinematographers, composers, visual-effects supervisors, action coordinators, and the like) into the Chinese film industry—which is to say, into the Chinese propaganda machine.

By propaganda, I do not mean lavish epics about sexy female wuxia warriors, or animated features with cute pandas and white-whiskered sages under blossoming plum trees. I mean bloody, ultra-violent action flicks, in which heroic, righteous Chinese soldiers kick some serious ass, including cowardly, decadent American ass, in exotic foreign places that are clearly in need of Xi Jinping Thought.

The prime example is Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), a nonstop tsunami of gun battles, massive explosions, wrenching hand-to-hand combat, and a spectacular tank chase, which hammers away at a single message: China is bringing security, prosperity, and modern health care to Africa, while the United States is bringing only misery. The film broke all box-office records in China and is still, at $5.6 billion, its highest-grossing film ever. And while the state media lauded it for beating Hollywood at its own game, they neglected to mention that the action was choreographed by the Hollywood veteran Sam Hargrave.

Hong Kong has seen a similar migration. Indeed, two other hit films in the same action genre, Operation Mekong (2016) and Operation Red Sea (2018), were directed by Dante Lam, one of several Hong Kong natives who have become cogs in Beijing’s propaganda factory. Described by Jessica Kiang of Variety as “unembarrassed jingoism,” these films drive home the message that Chinese soldiers embody “every virtue of innocence, bravery, fraternity, self-sacrifice, and nobility, while outside China’s borders, all is corruption, cowardliness, depravity, and ineptitude.” These two films are also quite explicitly anti-American, which should be a clue to Hollywood veterans that their interests as Americans are not well aligned with those of Beijing.

Some people in Hollywood understand what is happening and would very much like to stop China from chipping away at their industry’s hard-won freedom. But unfortunately, the deep-blue movie colony is deeply averse to doing anything that agrees, or seems to agree, with the political agenda of Donald Trump. Another obstacle is general anxiety, not only about future prospects in China, but also about a shrinking and divided domestic audience that is still, despite everything, Hollywood’s bedrock.

Given the stunning technological transformation of the 21st-century landscape, all this talk of threats to films—and books, for that matter—may sound outdated. As moviegoing and reading become increasingly marginalized by social media and online streaming, does it really matter that the Chinese Communist Party is squeezing the life out of Hong Kong publishers and American filmmakers? Of course it does, because the same squeezing is being applied to the digital media that were believed, not so long ago, to be a potent force for free expression.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Hollywood got something right when it pushed to reclassify its product as an art form worthy of First Amendment protection. By embracing the old “business, pure and simple” mind-set, Hollywood has produced a decades-long assembly line of forgettable blockbusters whose titles ought to have been Cash Cow, Cash Cow 2, and Cash Cow: Reloaded. But it has also created films such as 12 Angry Men, On the Waterfront, In the Heat of the Night, and Erin Brockovich, which showed the ability of American citizens and institutions to confront problems and injustices that exist throughout the world. With free expression under threat everywhere today, it is a disgrace that China seems to understand the cultural and geopolitical power of film better than the industry that made these great movies and others like them.