Chinese Communism’s Anniversary Shines Light On Censorship—In America
Op-ed column originally published at Investors.com
By Richard Berman
On this day 67 years ago, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China, a one-party state controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. As Mao proclaimed, “The People’s War of Liberation has been basically won, and the majority of the people in the country have been liberated.”
Not quite. China still waves a red flag, but liberty eludes its people—stifled under an totalitarian regime leery of dissent.
The Communist Party slaps political dissenters with hefty prison sentences. No government jails journalists at a higher rate. It heavily censors the Internet, outlawing seemingly harmless search terms such as “democracy” and “march.” Facebook and Twitter remain outlawed.
The film industry is perhaps the most restrictive. China currently allows only 34 foreign movies into the country, all of which are subject to heavy editing by a state agency called the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT).
No foreign production can penetrate China’s lucrative market of 1.3 billion people—a boon for Hollywood filmmakers—without receiving SAPPRFT’s stamp of approval. The agency’s mission is to portray Chinese culture favorably by censoring images that “undermine ethnic unity and social stability.”
This leaves U.S. moviemakers in a precarious position. Due to SAPPRFT restrictions, all American movie scripts are vulnerable to “requested” changes or self-censorship based on the Communist Party’s wishes. Any favorable depiction of the U.S. military, for example, comes under intense scrutiny, while perceived criticism of Chinese foreign policy—think the country’s aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea—is downplayed.
Debating the release of “Skyfall,” the 2013 James Bond film, SAPPRFT removed a scene of a French assassin shooting a Chinese security guard because the “foreign perpetrator” made China “(look) weak.”
Leading up to the release in China of “Iron Man 3” that same year, filmmakers inserted a scene of doctors discussing surgery on the superhero, all of whom were played by major Chinese movie stars. The 2006 release of “Mission: Impossible III”—partially shot in Shanghai—retroactively excluded a scene of the city featuring underwear hanging from a clothesline because SAPPRFT claimed it portrayed China as “a developing country.”
In some cases, U.S. filmmakers pre-empt SAPPRFT’s approval process by altering scripts themselves. Before completion, “Pixels”—the 2015 action-comedy flick—initially depicted aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall, but the scene was removed entirely from the final version of the movie. Producers “spared the Great Wall because they were anxious to get the movie approved for release in China.”
Similarly, the 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town, yet producers changed the invaders into North Koreans pre-release without even receiving a formal complaint from Beijing.
Now Beijing seeks to infiltrate Hollywood on its own turf. Dalian Wanda, a Chinese firm with close ties to the Communist Party, is intent on “build(ing) a real movie empire” by consolidating U.S. film studios and movie theater chains under one parent company.
In 2012, the company bought AMC Entertainment—the second largest movie theater chain in the country—for about $2.6 billion. It then purchased Legendary Entertainment—the producer of “The Dark Knight Trilogy“—for an even heftier $3.5 billion in January of this year. Chinese-controlled AMC now plans to buy Carmike Cinemas for $1.2 billion, forming the country’s largest chain with 8,380 screens in more than 600 theaters by the end of the year.
Selling buttered popcorn appears to be the least of Wanda’s objectives. The company’s founder and chairman, Wang Jianlin, is a former Communist deputy who served in the People’s Liberation Army for almost two decades. He claims to “stay close to the (Chinese) government,” steering at least $1.1 billion in state subsidies from the Communist Party—which has vowed to “build its capacity in international communication”—to Wanda, Beijing’s foot soldier on the ground.
By gaining a foothold in the U.S. movie industry, Wanda assumes greater control of the production and distribution processes, including the capacity to censor movies pre- and post-release. The company could even block a “controversial” movie—that is, one unapproved by the Communist Party—from being produced or shown at its movie theaters. As Wang proudly admits, “AMC’s boss is Chinese, so more Chinese films should be in their theaters where possible.”
Just don’t be surprised to hear that those militarized South China Sea islands are run by Club Med.