Free Speech

"Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing"

A new report from the writer's group PEN America.

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From the report:

This report examines the ways in which Beijing's censors have affected and influenced Hollywood and the global filmmaking industry. Stories shape the way people think, and the stories told by Hollywood reach billions. As an anti-censorship organization dedicated to the celebration of open cultural and artistic expression, PEN America has sought to understand how one of the world's most censorious regimes is extending its influence over the global locus for filmmaking here in the United States, shaping what is perhaps the world's most influential artistic and cultural medium.

PEN America defends and celebrates freedom of expression in the United States and globally. Our work has included a decades-long advocacy engagement on China, where dozens of members of our sister PEN organization—the Independent Chinese PEN Center—have been imprisoned or persecuted by Beijing.1 The most influential of those colleagues was Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence for his writings when he died of liver cancer.2 Our work has involved advocacy campaigns, detailed research reports, literary exchanges, and other efforts aimed at pushing back against Beijing's censorship policies and its criminalization of dissent.

Over the last decade or more, as Beijing has expanded its global role as a world power, leading trade partner, sovereign investor, and cultural influence, these domestic patterns of censorship and control have extended beyond China's borders. Beijing's rising global influence has meant that the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) approach to censorship is making itself felt by publishers, authors, scholars, writers, journalists, and others who address topics of interest to China, regardless of their citizenship or where they are based….

We have seen this exportation of censorious pressure elsewhere, so much so that there is a long—and growing longer—list of examples from the last few years alone: the major academic publisher Cambridge University Press attempting to pull titles from access by Chinese audience due to fear of CCP retaliation;3 the consistent degradation of press freedoms and civil liberties in Hong Kong;4 New Zealand publishers finding their books censored by Chinese printers;5 academics and students across the globe facing intimidation when they speak out on issues the CCP considers sensitive;6 and global brands forced to apologize simply for printing the words "Taiwan" or "the Dalai Lama."7

Increasingly, Beijing's economic clout has allowed it to insist that others comply with its censorship strictures—or has led others to voluntarily internalize these strictures, even without being asked—as a prerequisite to doing business with or in the country. While individual compromises may seem minor or worthwhile in exchange for the opportunity to engage with China's population, the collective global implications of playing by Beijing's rules need to be recognized and understood before acquiescence to Chinese censorship becomes a new normal in countries that have prided themselves for their staunch free speech protections.

Hollywood is an important bellwether. The Chinese government, under Xi Jinping especially, has heavily emphasized its desire to ensure that Hollywood filmmakers—to use their preferred phrase—"tell China's story well."8 Within the pages of this report, we detail how Hollywood decision-makers and other filmmaking professionals are increasingly making decisions about their films—the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings—based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.

As U.S. film studios compete for the opportunity to access Chinese audiences, many are making difficult and troubling compromises on free expression: changing the content of films intended for international—including American—audiences; engaging in self-censorship; agreeing to provide a censored version of a movie for screening in China; and in some instances directly inviting Chinese government censors onto their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censors' wires. These concessions to the power of the Chinese market have happened mostly quietly, with little attention and, often, little debate. Steadily, a new set of mores has taken hold in Hollywood, one in which appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has simply become a way of doing business.9

Footnotes and many more details here. Thanks to the Media Law Resource Center's MediaLawDaily for the pointer.

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  1. Just one concrete example of this problem that everyone should recognize I’d like to share.

    Finn, the Star Wars character portrayed by the black actor John Boyega was photoshopped out of the posters for the last Star Wars movie for China. Moreover, his character arc was supposed to have him become a Jedi, but those sweet, sweet commie dollars Disney wanted didn’t allow for it.

    George Lucas didn’t think that way, and gave us Lando and Mace Windu in an earlier time. Meanwhile, Disney has publicly jumped on the “we are not racist” corporate bandwagon after the George Floyd death. They are two faced on this issue.

    1. I’d heard about the poster. The Jedi thing sounds like rank speculation.

      Blockbuster plots are changed for all sorts of venal reasons. I don’t know that I have a fundamental issue with making China happy being folded into the usual executive meddling.

      1. It’s not rank speculation, it was part of various deleted scenes to start with. And it wasn’t changed for a venal reason, but due to China.

        1. Given the back-and-forth about those movies, I doubt you can talk about what the plot was supposed to be or not.

          And look up what venal means.

  2. I like the idea of an export tax, although it isn’t just China doing this. Canada does as well.

    About a decade ago now, some Canadian bureaucracy ordered that the third verse of Dire Straits 1985 “Money for Nothing” be censored — and for a while the only version of the classic MTV video that you could find was the censored version where the verse was replaced with background music.

    “See the little faggot with the earring and the make-up
    Yeah buddy that’s his own hair
    That little faggot got his own jet airplane
    That little faggot he’s millionaire”

    1. See: https://www.foxnews.com/world/dire-straits-song-should-be-censored

      And the problem with the internet is that censoring something somewhere censors it everywhere.

      1. Others have said it, and I agree, if you like a piece of literature or a movie or TV show, you have to buy a physical copy of it as the only sure way to avoid retroactive changes by woke corporations. Your DVD or dead tree book won’t have changes made later.

    2. When you occasionally hear this song on the radio in the States, since the mid 2000s or so, the stations censor out the word “faggot” and replace it with just the “f” sound of the word.

  3. ” Steadily, a new set of mores has taken hold in Hollywood, one in which appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has simply become a way of doing business.”

    Because appeasing (and enabling) is always a good strategy. /Bugs Bunny raised skeptical eyebrow.

    Playing with the CCP is a Faustian Deal. Ask the NBA.

  4. The Red Dawn remake in 2012 originally had China as the invaders and was rewritten to make North Korea the big bad invaders after pressure.

    1. My favorite example is Fate of the Furious where they were very careful to call the bad guys Russian SEPARATISTS.

      It was as hilarious and ham-fisted as meeting a stranger in the alps.

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