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How China is Reweaving Hollywood’s Red Carpet

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

REVIEW — Much of the world is correctly focused these days on whether the Russian army is about to invade Ukraine and possibly seize Kyiv. For a different, but also quite frightening storyline, look no further than Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. The book, by Wall Street Journal correspondent Erich Schwartzel, illuminates China’s invasion of the entertainment industry and seizure of Hollywood without firing a shot.

Readers of The Cipher Brief will know of a few of the anecdotes Schwartzel tells, such as how the makers of the “Top Gun” sequel caved to Chinese sensitivities and removed Taiwanese and Japanese flags from Tom Cruise’s leather jacket. But the book provides countless fresh stories and context – far less trivial than Maverick’s flight jacket, that show the power that the Chinese government wields over the worldwide entertainment industry.

Red Carpet rolls out a seemingly endless series of examples of how China has embarked on a long march from a motion picture backwater that allowed its citizens to see just one U.S. made movie from 1951 to 1981 – to the point where, by 2020, it was the number one box-office market in the world. Along the way, China wielded enormous power to ensure that if a studio wanted their product available to the 1.4 billion people in their country – the filmmaker had to steer away from the lengthy list of topics that Beijing finds offensive – ranging from Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen – or even themes of rebellion and questioning authority (unless that authority is the west.)

The book could hardly be timelier, debuting during the 2022 Winter Olympics where those who wish to cover the events live, twist themselves into triple Salchow’s to avoid offending the hosts and saying anything about China’s human rights record.

Schwartzel makes clear that the United States is not innocent when it comes to harnessing the power of motion pictures to advance its transnational goals. He says about one hundred years ago, Will Hays, first chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, described Hollywood as an “adjunct of our State Department.” During World War II and in its aftermath, Hollywood was enlisted to enhance America’s reputation. One Tinseltown producer described this as “Donald Duck as world diplomat!”

But while the west made great use of its cinematic arsenal – their efforts were minuscule compared to the way Beijing weaponized their motion picture industry – and ours. The answer to how and why, as is so often the case, comes down to money. Long before the Chinese box-office took off — commanding Hollywood’s full attention – Chinese investments were flooding into the U.S. buying up movie theater chains and investing in studios. Hollywood quickly started catering and caving to Chinese sensitivities.

One studio executive said he did not see himself as “…the standard bearer of Western democracy. I’m here to make money!” As more and more tech giants like Sony and Apple got into the entertainment game – their financial ties to China made it even more unlikely that they would risk doing anything that might offend Beijing. A senior Apple executive in charge of “entertainment strategy” is quoted in the book talking about his company’s content plans saying: “The two things we will never do are hard-core nudity and China.”

The studios learned their lessons the hard way. In the 1990s, Disney began shooting a movie about the Dalai Lama called Kundun. The director was Martin Scorsese. For China, any mention of Tibet – let alone a favorable one, crossed a red line. They leaned heavily on Disney to abandon the project. The studio couldn’t quite bring itself to kill the movie given its sunk cost and famous director – but they decided to bury it. The film opened on Christmas in 1997. And where a typical movie debuts on a couple of thousand screens across America – Kundun was shown on two. China was not satisfied. They banned Disney films and cartoons until CEO Michael Eisner groveled, calling the movie a “stupid mistake.”

Then, in 2008, MGM got it into their heads to do a remake of the cold war film “Red Dawn.” In the new version – instead of the storyline being about a Soviet invasion of the United States resisted by teenagers– the remake would be about the Chinese attacking America. MGM shot the movie which, as originally outlined, involved China attacking Taiwan, the U.S. aiding its allies – followed by China ruining the U.S. economy and then sending paratroopers in to take over U.S. cities. OK, that was a little far-fetched (I hope.) But after the film was shot – MGM spent millions of dollars digitally altering the film so that Chinese flags were converted to North Korean banners and re-recording dialog to change the bad guys to a more acceptable foe.

As the years rolled by – the lengths that Hollywood would go to appease Beijing grew exponentially. Actors who have offended Beijing (like Richard Gere who is highly pro-Tibet) have essentially been blacklisted by mainstream Hollywood to avoid offending the Chinese government. Scenes are cut from existing films – over the slightest possibility of insult. And American filmmakers now go out of their way to cram as many pro “Chinese elements” into their films as possible in what Schwartzel calls a kind of “reverse censorship.”

Red Carpet also explores the growth of China’s domestic motion picture industry, which cranks out increasingly elaborate jingoistic films often featuring disreputable Americans fighting and losing to heroic Chinese martial arts experts.

If it were just a matter of the programming shown in the U.S. and China – it would be bad enough, but Schwartzel spends considerable time showing how China is using television and motion pictures as a soft power tool to help implement their Belt and Road Initiative – particularly in Africa where China has cornered much of the market on both the distribution and content of entertainment offered to key developing nations.

Of course, the hypersensitivity to Chinese feelings is not the province of filmmakers alone. In 2020, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” You would have thought he had demanded that Xi Jinping tear down the Great Wall of China. The NBA rushed to say Morey’s comments were “regrettable” and superstar LeBron James, (with business and entertainment interests well beyond basketball) said Morey was “misinformed.”

Red Carpet is a fascinating book and my only quibble with it – is that the author did not provide any roadmap to turnback the assault. Perhaps, like a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia – the best we can hope for is for brave individuals to try their best to stand up to an invasion.

Book Review: Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy by Erich Schwartzel / Penguin Press

The Reviewer: Bill Harlow is The Cipher Brief’s senior book editor. He is the former chief spokesman for the CIA. A retired Navy captain, Harlow is the co-author of four New York Times bestsellers on intelligence and is the author of Circle William: A Novel.

This book earns a prestigious four trench coats.

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