Iron Man vs. the Super Censors

In China, even Tony Stark can’t get around the culture police.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Robert Downey Jr. took Beijing. On May 1, the blockbuster franchise Iron Man 3 opened in China, pulling in a record-breaking $21 million on its first day and $65 million over the long weekend. If you’ve already seen it here in the United States, you haven’t quite seen all of it. That’s because Chinese audiences were treated to a version that’s about four minutes longer, and noticeably different in some awkward ways. Call it kowtowing to the Chinese market or product placement, but it’s clear that Beijing’s censors had their hands all over this one. To please Chinese authorities, filmmakers changed the name of the film’s villain from Mandarin to Man Daren (meaning "big man"), added a plug for a Chinese milk drink that can recharge Iron Man, and inserted a bizarre, almost laughable, scene where the movie’s hero goes to China for a critical surgery operation.

When U.S. films come to Chinese theaters, it’s pretty easy to see the meddling hand of Chinese censors. But Beijing exerts an almost equally tight control on Chinese cultural exports abroad, contorting the surge of the nation’s culture on the world stage.

China is growing in importance as not just as an importer, but also as an exporter of culture. Yet the assertive push to showcase the work of Chinese writers, artists, and cultural innovators inevitably draws attention to those voices and visionaries who are blocked by censorship and related forms of government oppression.

Iron Man 3 was released into a Chinese film market that’s heating up quickly. In the last year, nearly 100 new IMAX screens have opened up in China, with over 1,000 more planned. Box office revenues rose by 37 percent in 2012 to $2.7 billion, powering China past Japan as the world’s second-largest film market. Approximately 10 new cinema screens open every day. Tapping this lucrative market has become a near obsession for Hollywood executives facing lackluster sales at home. Plots, characters and themes are now being developed with Chinese audiences — and Chinese censors — in mind. 

The trend is not confined to the big screen. In October 2012, the Shanghai government opened two huge, new, state art museums, including the Shanghai Art Palace which, at 2.1 million square feet, is bigger than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Both offer an ambitious range of both Chinese art and splashy global exhibitions. Beijing is holding an international architectural competition to design a 1.4 million square foot art museum near the Olympic Stadium. These investments are part of a strategy dubbed "Going Out, Inviting In," which encourages museums to mount shows abroad.

The cultural push goes beyond art. In the last decade, China has opened up more than 350 Confucian Institutes in over 100 countries, with plans to bring the total up to 1,000. Modeled on the British Council and Alliances Françaises, the centers teach Chinese languages and hold performances, kids’ events, and conferences. The institutes also fund the travel of thousands of foreign scholars and professionals to China each year. Chinese state-run media companies have established outposts throughout Africa, filling a vacuum left as Western media cuts back on foreign bureaus. And in 2012, the state broadcaster China Central Television entered the U.S. market with a glossy new network broadcasting government-approved news.

These efforts will likely gain momentum under China’s new leadership. Since his appointment in November, President Xi Jinping has spoke often about "China’s Renaissance" and "China’s Dream." The Song, Tang and Han dynasties to which Xi’s slogans hearken were known not just for their political influence or economic strength, but also for their artistic achievements.

Just as the United States set up its own libraries and information centers abroad in the mid-twentieth century, the Confucian centers are partly a natural byproduct of a wealthier, more globally engaged China. A better understood and more influential Chinese culture can grease the wheels of Beijing’s economic and political engine, just like American music, movies, and sitcoms did, and still do, for the United States.  

But the dividends of Chinese cultural investments will be discounted as long as Beijing keeps censoring its most interesting exports. Many of its boldest faces internationally have made their name while resisting Chinese government controls. Just last month, the well-known Chinese director Feng Xiaogang used an acceptance speech for a Chinese Film Director’s Guild Award to lament: "In the past 20 years, every China director faced a great torment, and that torment is [beep]." By cutting out the offending reference to censorship, Chinese censors put the spotlight on themselves.

When Chinese novelist Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature, scarcely a story in the international media reported the news without also mentioning Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier in recognition of his defiance of Beijing. Mo’s failure to more openly challenge the constraints of the Chinese regime, or to support Liu, made his achievement as controversial as it was crowning.  

China’s cultural push is by necessity largely confined to film, television, radio, exhibits, and in-person events. Severe controls over the Internet and social media make it difficult for it to effectively promote its culture through today’s most powerful global platforms. China’s most frenzied and dynamic cultural outlets — its microblogging sites — are defined by censorship and by a dizzying array of user-tactics aimed to evade it.

Beijing’s billions in cultural investments aim to showcase China’s accomplishments and contributions. But for every great Chinese painting, poem or film exhibited internationally there is a tale of the creations that are buried or distorted by censorship. The story of China’s cultural emergence has spawned a counter-narrative of the state’s war against its own greatest writers and artists. The heroes in that story are not those on screen, but those who are kept off.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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