Banned books. Jailed journalists. Forbidden Facebook.
Under the Communist Party, China remains a culturally suppressive society defined by censorship rather than free speech.
Yet Chinese censorship stifles not only the Chinese citizenry, but also the American public. As globalization accelerates and state-sponsored firms commit to private investment in the West, the Communist Party grows increasingly influential beyond its own borders.
The movie industry is ground zero. China currently allows only 34 non-Chinese productions into the country, all of which are subject to editing by a state agency called the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). No foreign film can penetrate China’s lucrative market — expected to surpass the United States as early as next year — 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 means that American movie scripts are subject to change based on the Communist Party’s wishes. Grappling with the release of “Skyfall,” the 2013 James Bond flick, 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 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” — partly 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. film producers pre-empt SAPPRFT’s approval process through self-censorship. The 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town, yet moviemakers changed the invaders into North Koreans pre-release without even receiving a formal complaint from Beijing.
It gets even worse. Dalian Wanda, a Chinese firm with close ties to the Communist Party, is now intent on “building 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 $2.6 billion. It then bought Legendary Entertainment — the film studio responsible for “The Dark Knight Trilogy” — for an even heftier $3.5 billion in January of this year. Wanda-controlled AMC now plans to buy Carmike Cinemas for $1.2 billion, which would form the country’s largest chain with 8,380 screens in more than 600 theaters.
Selling buttered popcorn seems like 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. Wang has steered at least $1.1 billion in government subsidies from the Communist Party — which has vowed to “build its capacity in international communication” — to Wanda, Beijing’s foot soldier on the ground.
When the company acquired Legendary in January, Wang called it “China’s largest cross-border cultural acquisition to date.” He has now pledged to acquire one — if not more — of Hollywood’s “Big Six” studios, which comprise Columbia, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures. In Wang’s words, “We are interested not only in Paramount, but all of them.”
What does Wanda plan to do with them? Anything and everything. In 2015, Wang’s company bankrolled “Southpaw’s” $25 million production budget, becoming the first Chinese firm to “solely finance an American movie.” And Wanda left fingerprints everywhere. According to David Glasser, president of Weinstein Co., which produced and marketed the film, “(Wanda was) involved — it wasn’t just a silent investment.” Glasser went even further: “They were on the set and involved in production, postproduction, marketing, everything.”
By gaining a foothold in the U.S. movie industry, Wanda assumes greater control of the production and distribution process, 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. Any favorable depiction of the U.S. military or critique of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea would be put on the chopping block.
America’s new red scare has become a nightmare.