Argument

Chinese Film Studios Are Blacklisting Americans

As the trade war escalates, producers are killing projects and sacking actors.

Actor Chen Xuedong, actor Zheng Kai, singer and actor Lu Han, actor Zhang Hanyu, actor and singer Andy Lau, actress Jing Tian, director Zhang Yimou, American actor Matt Damon, Chilean-born American actor Pedro Pascal, American actor Willem Dafoe, actor Eddie Peng, actor Lin Gengxin, singer and actor Wang Junkai attend the premiere of Zhang Yimou's film "The Great Wall" on December 6, 2016 in Beijing, China.
Actor Chen Xuedong, actor Zheng Kai, singer and actor Lu Han, actor Zhang Hanyu, actor and singer Andy Lau, actress Jing Tian, director Zhang Yimou, American actor Matt Damon, Chilean-born American actor Pedro Pascal, American actor Willem Dafoe, actor Eddie Peng, actor Lin Gengxin, singer and actor Wang Junkai attend the premiere of Zhang Yimou's film "The Great Wall" on December 6, 2016 in Beijing, China. Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

The launch party for Over the Sea I Come to You, held at a five-star hotel in Beijing in mid-May, went off without a hitch. The new show, a big-budget production filmed in the United States about overseas Chinese students and starring the veteran actor Sun Honglei alongside numerous American co-stars, had been in production since 2016 and was expected to be a rare exception to the cheap cookie-cutter fare of Chinese TV.

At the media event in the Grand Hyatt Beijing, cast and crew chatted with staff from among the five major media companies set to broadcast the show and speculated whether it could be picked up by Amazon, Netflix, or one of the other major U.S. streaming studios, perhaps launching some careers afresh in the United States. Three days later, such talk was over. The show was abruptly canceled on May 17 before the first episode was even broadcast—and with it, perhaps, the global aspirations of many in the Chinese TV industry.

It looked like simply another casualty of the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. But the fate of Over the Sea may be a grim portent for any number of U.S. dreams in China — including the multi-billion dollar hopes of Hollywood.

For years, aspirational expatriates of semiacceptable age, attractiveness, and (occasionally) acting ability have been able to find work in the fast-paced, often chaotic world of Chinese TV, modeling, and cinema. In return for dealing with the industries’ nonunionized, devil-may-care attitude to safety and quality control, a few have managed to carve out lucrative careers playing spurned suitors, arrogant imperialists, and drunken colonials.

Now many are being told that they may never work in this town again—or at least as long as Beijing and Washington continue to growl at each other over trade. David, who, like others Foreign Policy spoke to, asked not to use his real name, said he has been left “completely fucked” after casting agents told him, in the middle of a shoot this week, that his and the other U.S.-born cast members’ services would no longer be required.

Another crew was in the middle of working on a similar project to Over the Sea, about students living in the United States, when a number were told around the same time that the production in a south-central Chinese city could no longer hire Americans for its foreign roles; instead, the show would undergo hasty rewrites to relocate the action elsewhere. Two other actors said they had seen projects canceled, sometimes in midnegotiation, for similar reasons after the rapid escalation of the U.S.-China clashes last week.

As yet, there’s no official order to forbid the casting of Americans, according to sources close to the matter. Instead, the decision has been made by TV chiefs acting in anticipation or fear of such a condition being imposed or expected of them in the future, the sources said. China has a long history of mobilizing its population—in particular, state-owned or linked enterprises, which account for much of its economy—in support of foreign policy, whether its approving demonstrations against countries with which it has territorial disputes, such as Vietnam and the Philippines; forcing TV stations to broadcast blanket anti-Japanese war programming; or boycotting foreign goods, and even people, that Beijing considers antithetical to its cause.

Not long ago, South Korean business interests reported that many of the country’s most popular exports, including soap stars, pop singers, and consumer goods, were being subject to unexplained cancellations and restrictions in response to South Korea’s decision in July 2016 to deploy the U.S.-made THAAD missile defense system. It wasn’t until later that year that Beijing semiofficially confirmed that a ban was in place as part of a series of petty reprisals against its neighbor.

The current clampdown on Americans, while not yet an outright ban, is a preemptive response from a beleaguered industry in a state of financial and organizational confusion following a slew of crackdowns—including the Korea episode, along with numerous rounds of sudden censorship against shows considered “vulgar” or containing overly “foreign elements”—as well as an ongoing scandal over tax evasion, triggered by the disappearance into detention of the country’s most famous actress, that has driven programming and profits to its lowest ebb in years. Banning Americans is intended to reassure both regulators and investors that producers are toeing the line—as such, the restrictions could become more widespread or continue indefinitely. “They’re terrified of causing offence and partly exhausted from all the recent bullshit,” said one producer, referring to several recent incidents that typify the ongoing restrictions.

These have included the last-minute cancellation of two high-profile screenings at foreign festivals for “technical reasons” (a third, The Wild Goose Lake, went ahead at Cannes in the absence of its creative team) and a decision not to air the finale of Game of Thrones due to a “media transmission problem.” Perhaps in an overly optimistic outlook, most of the sources Foreign Policy spoke to said they hoped that the matter would be resolved within a few months, citing the need for good trade relations and the lack of an official diktat.

Right now, the unofficial bans only affect the relatively small number of American actors in China. But if the trade war worsens, U.S. film studios themselves may become a major target. China is one of Hollywood’s biggest markets, and authorities had been backing off previous limits to foreign releases. Any tightening of access could be calamitous for an industry that’s still betting big on a Beijing-driven future.

For the moment, Over the Sea and other shows with a U.S.-China theme, such as the New York-based Waiting for You in Beijing, also in hiatus, will be left waiting to see if their investment in U.S.-China relations will prove a long-term political taboo. For industry veterans, it should be no surprise that the world’s second-largest economy is also among the least transparent, with businesses and visas subject to arbitrary enforcement of vague or unwritten rules and career-ending decisions made at the whim of a largely unseen bureaucracy, as well as those who must flatter to appease it.

Those stuck in China know the latter is often impossible: After dedicating their energies to safely producing all anti-Japanese content all the time, producers learned in 2015 that China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television was placing restrictions on wartime dramas for being “overly entertaining.” When a pair of innocuous historical dramas, Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, became national blockbusters last year, censors pulled the plug for their alleged “negative influence on society.” For foreigners tired of the punitive regulatory volte-faces, though, it may soon be time to consider staking a claim in friendlier territory.

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com.

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