Before the Winter Olympics, Chinese officials cautioned athletes against speaking out about topics that cast them in a bad light. Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told American athletes not to anger the Chinese authorities.
It was the latest sign that China’s campaign to stifle dissent is succeeding in an important way: US institutions and businesses are silencing themselves to avoid angering the Chinese government.
The professional wrestler and actor John Cena apologized, in Mandarin, last year for calling Taiwan a country. In 2019, a Houston Rockets executive apologized for tweeting support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong after Chinese officials complained, and a top video game publisher suspended an e-sports competitor who voiced support for the protests. The 2013 movie “World War Z” was rewritten to clarify that its zombie-spawning virus didn’t originate in China.
Erich Schwartzel, the author of “Red Carpet,” which is about China’s relationship with Hollywood, told me that one number drives these decisions: 1.4 billion, China’s population.
American businesses and institutions want access to this enormous market. Given China’s authoritarian leadership, that means playing by the Chinese Communist Party’s rules — and, in particular, avoiding criticism of its human rights abuses. So cultural institutions that are external Bastions of American values like free expression are now frequently absent from public conversations about China.
US sports and media have often showcased American values, even if clumsily or unfairly. These cultural exports helped spread democratic ideas internationally during the Cold War. Movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Selma,” which celebrates democracy, justice and equality, can change how people view the world and how it works. Celebrities can push people to vote or get vaccinated, or put a spotlight on neglected problems.
Censorship prevents these institutions from shining a light on China as its leaders oppress dissidents, crack down on democracy in Hong Kong, round up and detain ethnic Uyghurs and threaten war with Taiwan.
Asked about business in China in an interview with the Times Opinion writer Kara Swisher, the former Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledged the reality facing Hollywood: “You try in the process not to compromise what I’ll call values. But there are compromises that companies have to make to be global.”
A recent example of censorship appears in “Top Gun: Maverick,” set to premiere in US theaters this year. In the original 1986 movie, Tom Cruise’s character, the US Navy aviator Pete Mitchell, wore a jacket with patches of the Taiwanese and Japanese flags. In the coming sequel, those flags are gone.
As Schwartzel reported, Chinese investors told movie executives that the Taiwanese flag was a problem because China doesn’t consider Taiwan independent. Playing it safe, the executives also removed the Japanese flag because of Japan’s own historical tensions with China.
In the meantime, Chinese studios are getting better at making movies, and they’re not afraid to take an anti-American stance. In 2017’s popular “Wolf Warrior 2,” the Chinese hero Leng Feng saves African villages from an American mercenary called Big Daddy, who proclaims his people’s supremacy moments before Leng triumphs and kills him.
The consequences are asymmetrical. Chinese movies proudly showcase their country’s values while American movies remain silent about China — skewing the messages people hear not just in the US and China but across the globe.
American movies can even give the impression that China is better. In the 2014 movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” US officials were portrayed “in unflattering tones,” according to PEN America. The Chinese characters in the film, which was made with the Chinese government’s support, were more often selfless and heroic. Variety called the movie “a splendidly patriotic film, if you happen to be Chinese.”
“Transformers” made more than $1 billion at the box office — $300 million of it from China. From a business perspective, it was a success.
A growing problem
The pull of censorship stands to grow as China’s economy, and therefore the potential market for US businesses, also grows.
Some American lawmakers have tried to address the problem, but any change in US policy would most likely have little effect. The same free-speech rights those politicians defend also make it hard for them to tell Hollywood, the NBA or anyone else what to do.
Another issue: The most striking and obvious examples of censorship have involved blatant interventions by Chinese officials. But US businesses are more frequently doing what Yaqiu Wang at Human Rights Watch calls anticipatory self-censorship: “Before the idea of a movie is even conceived, the first thing they need to think is, ‘How can I make sure that this movie can be shown in China?”’”
That kind of self-censorship is harder to detect — or do anything about.
Ultimately, American institutions may have to make their own choice: Reject censorship or maintain access to China. Right now, desire for access is winning.
China’s censorship efforts are part of attempts to shore up domestic nationalism by Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader.
“Friends” is the latest victim of censorship on China’s streaming platforms.
In a rare reversal, the original ending of “Fight Club” was restored after an international backlash.
American academics say they also feel increasing pressure to censor themselves when talking about China.
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