Will China Soon Control American Movies?

  September 15, 2016   Op-Ed Columns

Op-ed column originally published at WashingtonPost.com

By Frank Wolf

It may surprise most Americans to know that more than 140 Tibetans—including many Buddhist monks and nuns—have set themselves aflame over the past five years to protest the growing abuses of their people. In most cases, these protesters died in an effort to raise global awareness of Beijing’s targeted oppression, which the Dalai Lama has called a “cultural genocide.”

Last month, The Post published an important and underreported story about the growing abuses against the Tibetan people by the Chinese government, including a Tibetan woman who was found hanged—possibly by police—and the brutal crackdown against her family and community when they challenged the authorities over the lack of an investigation of her death.

This article documented one of countless examples of Beijing’s ever-increasing oppression of its people—especially ethnic and religious minorities targeted for raising legitimate grievances and examples of human rights abuses. Yet the Chinese government, thanks to its extreme efforts to control reporting and speech within China, has been able to largely block coverage of this and similar cases domestically.

There is growing concern that Chinese government influence over Western media organizations will lead to direct censorship or pressure to self-censor content to Beijing’s liking. This concern will only grow due to a surge of Chinese investment in the United States. Over the past five years, Chinese investment here has grown from $2 billion per year to an estimated $20 billion this year. This growth is significant given that Chinese companies are effectively controlled—whether through state ownership or strict direction—by Beijing.

It should be no surprise that a major focus of China’s investment in the United States is media companies, which produce the news and entertainment that so often shape our understanding of the world. One Chinese company, Dalian Wanda, has purchased the Hollywood movie studio Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion and is now seeking a 49 percent stake in Paramount Pictures, as well as purchases of America’s two largest movie theater chains: AMC and Carmike Cinemas. Wanda’s goal is to control 20 percent of the global box office by 2020—and it may reach that threshold sooner. This doesn’t include other Chinese investments in film studios, which would push the total share of Chinese box office control even higher.

Why should we be concerned? By controlling the financing and distribution of American movies, and subjecting them to censorship to gain access to the Chinese market, Beijing could effectively dictate what is and isn’t made—providing powerful control over America’s greatest cultural exports.

We have already seen examples of studios editing movie content to appease Chinese censors, such as “Mission: Impossible III,” “Skyfall,” “World War Z” and the remakes of “The Karate Kid” and “Red Dawn.” A recent report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that “China views film as a component of social control: in a 2014 speech, President Xi [Jinping] reaffirmed Mao Zedong’s dictate that ‘[Chinese] art serve politics.’ Through strict regulations governing film content, the CCP’s concerns are positioned above all other interests.”

Media self-censorship in the West is already becoming a serious concern. Noted Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao wrote in a July op-ed in The Post about being told that an offer from the American Bar Association to publish his book on human rights in China was rescinded over concerns that it might anger Beijing. In Britain there are new concerns about deepening ties between Western news organizations and Chinese government propaganda. Earlier this year, the Daily Mail—which operates the world’s most-visited English-language news website—entered into a partnership with the People’s Daily, which is published by the Chinese government.

What will be the impact of state-controlled Chinese companies owning more of the Western media? Would movies like “Seven Years in Tibet” be put on ice for fear of offending major studio owners? Will content that portrays the U.S. military or human rights activists in a positive light be rejected or edited out to gain favor with Beijing’s censors or attract Chinese investment?

There are several steps the United States could take now to address these serious concerns without reducing our competitiveness for global investment.

First, Congress and the Obama administration should consider expanding the charter for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to cover strategic “soft power” sectors, allowing the committee to review how foreign ownership from autocratic regimes might restrict creative freedom.

Second, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, originally passed in 1939 to address concerns about Soviet and Nazi propaganda, should be updated to consider the role of foreign censorship and influence in U.S. media ownership. A Justice Department Inspector General report released this month called on the department to update its FARA enforcement strategy, specifically citing foreign media operations, among others, as entities that should be covered by disclosure and reporting requirements, as well as federal civil investigative demand authority.

And finally, recent provisions in the annual defense and intelligence authorization bills before Congress to create an entity in government to monitor and respond to foreign propaganda and misinformation should be expanded to cover authoritarian foreign ownership of U.S. media.

Following these steps can keep the United States a place where people aren’t afraid to challenge human rights and religious freedom abuses—in Tibet and beyond.

More Updates