Artists of the World, Unite

Only by standing firm against China together can makers escape global cultural paralysis.

People buy tickets for Disney’s Mulan at a cinema inside a shopping mall in Bangkok on Sept. 8.
People buy tickets for Disney’s Mulan at a cinema inside a shopping mall in Bangkok on Sept. 8. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

Heard about the new James Bond movie, soon going into production, which features a Chinese hacker who manages to penetrate the northeastern United States’ electric grid?

Thought so. It is not actually in production, nor is it ever going to be. From now on, entertainment may feature American villains, Russian villains, evil Iranians, Germans, and cops, but there won’t be a new Dr. No. Chinese censors wouldn’t like it, so why bother trying? Attempts to stay on China’s good side have gone so far that in its new live-action version of the movie Mulan, Disney even credits the Turpan Public Security Bureau, an institution that helps operate Uighur internment camps.

Such behavior is not just demeaning to the artists involved, it’s harmful to democracy. And although the Chinese censors are mighty, they can be defeated through collective action. Artists of the world, unite!

For the past several years, a specter has been haunting Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea, and many other democratically ruled lands: censorship. Beijing has done its best to strengthen that ghost through its various weapons for controlling the media: its State Film Administration, State Administration of Radio and Television, and State Administration of Press and Publication; the China Film Group Corporation; the China Film Co-Production Corporation; and the Central Committee Publicity Department.

Two years ago, Disney, the powerful studio now humbly thanking an arm of the Chinese government, was seemingly unaware of Beijing’s reach. When Disney released Christopher Robin, a live-action version of the beloved Winnie the Pooh stories, it found the film mysteriously blocked from the 1.4 billion viewers in the Chinese market. Christopher Robin featured no subtle mention of Tibet, no Chinese villain in the Hundred Acre Wood. The likely problem? Winnie the Pooh happens to look a lot like Chinese President Xi Jinping, which caused merriment after enterprising Chinese Internet users posted images of the two.

Tinseltown has learned to be more circumspect, as the nonprofit PEN America detailed in a recent report. “Hollywood studios increasingly see access to China as a prerequisite for their movies’ financial success,” PEN noted. Given that China’s movie market overtook the United States for a quarter in 2018, that’s entirely logical. But Hollywood can’t bring movies to China the way it does to, say, Switzerland or India. If it wants movies released in China, it needs to please the country’s censors. Failing to do that can be the difference between a black and a red bottom line. In turn, “Beijing bureaucrats can demand changes to Hollywood movies—or expect Hollywood insiders to anticipate and make these changes, unprompted,” according to PEN America.

As a result, the censors usually don’t even need to ply their trade. The moviemakers try their hardest to anticipate what may encounter disapproval—and that means a lot of sanitizing just in case. The trailer for a forthcoming Top Gun sequel, for example, shows Tom Cruise wearing his familiar bomber jacket, but with the flags of Taiwan and Japan altered. Richard Gere—a public supporter of Tibet—has said he’s losing movie roles. And when the director of Seven Years in Tibet, Jean-Jacques Annaud, was recently given a new movie to direct, he published a Chinese-language penitential blog post so obsequious that it could have been written during a show trial. “I have always respected the rules of international conventions that acknowledge that Tibet is a part of Chinese territory,” Annaud swore.

The artistic harm is not limited to movies. When the Swedish pop star Zara Larsson announced earlier this summer that she had ended her sponsorship deal with Huawei because “China is not a nice government,” her songs swiftly disappeared from Apple in China. But none of Larsson’s fellow pop stars came to her rescue. Why should they? They’ve got their own income to protect. Too bad for those other artists who are either so naive or so foolhardy that they dare criticize the country that can fill their bank accounts.

But invisible censorship leads to a life led in fear, not to mention creative paralysis. Partial paralysis has already set in, thanks to the United States’ own outsized role in cultural production. Last year, the majority of the 20 top-grossing movies were American. Stars of music and film alike are adopting American themes, expressions, and language. Wang Ju, known as “China’s Beyoncé,” raps in Chinese and English. The Eurovision Song Contest’s top songs are now sung in English even though the United Kingdom is a minimal (and rather embarrassing) presence. The breadth of other countries’ cultures deserves more attention in pop culture. But China’s censors are not going to liberate the world from Hollywood creep. On the contrary, they’re a foe mightier even than Hollywood. It is high time for artists to openly publish their views on censorship and offer a manifesto of artistic freedom.

That means: Artists of the world, unite! Unite even though income from China is alluring, especially with the global entertainment market expected to shrink by 6 percent this year. Don’t abandon Pooh Bear simply because he happens to look like Xi. Make a movie about Tibet, Hong Kong booksellers, or Uighur “reeducation camp” inmates if you like, not to demean Beijing but because it’s compelling cinematic material. Hire Gere if he’s right for the role. Speak up for Larsson, who dares to say what everyone should have said. By all means, be apolitical as well when it suits. But kowtowing is no guarantee against eventually finding oneself frozen out.

China may be one of the world’s biggest entertainment markets, but artists in the West are among the biggest creators. If they were to stop showing their movies in Chinese cinemas, performing at Chinese arenas, and selling their songs to smartphone users in China—if the NBA were to stop playing in China to point out that Beijing has no right to censor NBA managers’ views on Hong Kong—it would be Beijing that would have to contend with a very large number of unhappy people.

For the past few years, Beijing has singled out Sweden as its favorite bullying victim, with the country’s ambassador to Sweden comparing his host country’s media to a lightweight boxer versus China, the heavyweight, and threatening consequences over a literary reward given to a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish nationality. But when it comes to pop music, Sweden is the heavyweight boxer. Its many producers—think of Max Martin and Shellback—are the best in the world. Only Paul McCartney and John Lennon have written more Billboard No. 1 hits than Martin. Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Ariana Grande are all his collaborators. His protégé, Shellback, boasts a similarly impressive résumé that includes Katy Perry and the Jonas Brothers.

The West shouldn’t lecture other countries or demand that they conform to its way of life. But if the governments of those countries want access to Western societies, the deal includes accepting mentions of free Tibet and images of Winnie the Pooh. Every German leader has to put up with Hitler mustaches drawn onto pictures of them. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin permits Russian translations of books critical of his country. It would be wrong for Western leaders to read Xi the Riot Act on freedom of expression, but if artists unite rather than trying to maximize their individual advantage, they have a chance of succeeding. If it were Martin versus Xi, it’s clear who people would root for.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola