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Patriotic Blockbusters Mean Big Box Office For Chinese Filmmakers

Censors have deliberately created a market ripe for propaganda.

Moviegoers watch a film in Taiyuan, China, on Feb. 12, 
the first day of the Lunar New Year. China’s box office revenue hit a record $9.2 billion in 2019.
Moviegoers watch a film in Taiyuan, China, on Feb. 12, the first day of the Lunar New Year. China’s box office revenue hit a record $9.2 billion in 2019. Zhang Yun/China News Service via Getty Images

It’s no coincidence—or secret—that China is churning out patriotic blockbusters, which have overtaken Hollywood films at the Chinese box office in recent years. But it’s not as explicit as Beijing handing out orders. Instead, the government has shifted its approach from direct intervention to indirect incentivization by shaping the economic conditions of the film industry to favor patriotic cinema. China’s film industry has been a fundamental extension of the state since the founding of the country in 1949. State-run studios dominated production until the 1990s when the state allowed private film companies to form to save the industry from financial collapse. In 1990, the head of the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television’s film bureau told the New York Times that the Chinese film industry was facing a “colossal” financial crisis because of the dominance of party-line ideological films that few people actually wanted to watch.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced a trade-off between economic liberalization and social control of the film industry, especially after the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. Rejecting the contradiction, the party pursued both—a balancing act that would come to define the Chinese development experiment across sectors.

It’s no coincidence—or secret—that China is churning out patriotic blockbusters, which have overtaken Hollywood films at the Chinese box office in recent years. But it’s not as explicit as Beijing handing out orders. Instead, the government has shifted its approach from direct intervention to indirect incentivization by shaping the economic conditions of the film industry to favor patriotic cinema. China’s film industry has been a fundamental extension of the state since the founding of the country in 1949. State-run studios dominated production until the 1990s when the state allowed private film companies to form to save the industry from financial collapse. In 1990, the head of the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television’s film bureau told the New York Times that the Chinese film industry was facing a “colossal” financial crisis because of the dominance of party-line ideological films that few people actually wanted to watch.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faced a trade-off between economic liberalization and social control of the film industry, especially after the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. Rejecting the contradiction, the party pursued both—a balancing act that would come to define the Chinese development experiment across sectors.

State-run companies were responsible for delivering patriotic productions or “main melody films,” which became mandatory viewing for students during Jiang Zemin’s patriotic education campaign in the 1990s. Meanwhile, China opened its doors to Hollywood in 1994 on a revenue-sharing basis, which accelerated the development of the domestic industry. To stave off unwelcome foreign influence, the first official censorship system was implemented in 1996.

Just one year later, Disney, Columbia, and MGM all had films blocked in China thanks to movies, such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, deemed biased against China. A memo issued by the then-Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television (today, after several name changes, the National Radio and Television Administration or NRTA) stated, “In order to protect Chinese national overall interests, it has been decided that all business cooperation with these three companies to be ceased temporarily without exception.”

Both now and then, Chinese authorities bring down a cleaver to send a resounding message. But most of the time, the state acts—in the notable words of East Asian studies professor Perry Link—as an “anaconda in the chandelier.” The giant snake does not move, but everyone in its shadow fears provoking it.

As the industry developed, privately owned film companies—not state-run studios—began spearheading the production of nationalistic cinema. Two decades ago, party-approved message films were viewed as the source of the industry’s failure. As recently as 2013, three films celebrating communist soldier and propaganda icon Lei Feng flopped despite state directives urging cinemas to promote them. Far from futile, the state redoubled its effort to nurture the marketable patriotic blockbuster. Patriotic message films now pave the most reliable path to box-office success. A series of big-budget patriotic films released in 2019 were, as one critic put it, “too red to fail” at the Chinese box office.

From public apologies to anti-corruption crackdowns, the CCP has tightened its grip over the film industry using many of the same tools it wields to assert control across sectors and society. In 2018, the state called for “self-examination and self-correction” in the industry and demanded movie moguls cough up $1.7 billion to the government.

But for those who toe the line, there’s plenty of profit to be had. What does it mean to be “too red to fail?” Film authorities ensure that big box-office receipts go to films that align with the state’s interests. Indirect censorship mechanisms become financial incentives for profit-seeking producers to create content that will succeed in the economic environment crafted by the state. Such mechanisms have always been in place, such as allowing patriotic film releases timed to major holidays, but have been strengthened under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The people running the Chinese film industry increasingly represent state interests. New restrictions on foreign investors mitigate outside influence, which grew in the 2000s when the investment landscape enjoyed a relatively free flow of capital, technology, expertise, and ideas. Since 2011, foreign investors have been prohibited from investing in film distribution companies and theater chains. Restrictions tightened even further under the 2015 Foreign Investment Law.

Meanwhile, members of the political elite, such as former Vice President Zeng Qinghong’s brother and former President Jiang Zemin’s son, have stepped in to share the tremendous profits of China’s film industry, memorably described as “the new playground for princelings.” Propaganda officials have reportedly asked their children to produce films that they approve. The CEO of Huayi Brothers—the first and most prominent private film company—committed to “more deeply integrate the party’s core socialist values … into the company’s lifeblood” with the help of the newly established CCP’s Huayi Brothers Media Company Committee.

In China’s saturated film market (2,308 films were produced in 2019), the state influences the visibility—and in turn, profitability—of the releases. Distribution remains largely controlled by state-owned enterprises. Cinema managers collude with state-run distributors to ensure that optimal screening schedules are reserved for those films, while independent films may secure as few as 0.2 percent of national cinemas.

In 2018, the then-State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, now the NRTA, designated 5,000 cinemas as the “People’s Theater Line” to receive subsidies to promote screenings of “main melody films.” A leaked administration directive in 2015 revealed it had ordered movie theater chains to use “any means necessary” to maximize box office returns for a propaganda war film to evoke “feelings of patriotism and national sentiment.” State directives also ordered the media to praise patriotic films and prohibit coverage of films considered disagreeable. A sensitive film is not a threat if no one watches it—not because it’s banned but because no one even knows of it.

Audiences appear to welcome and even favor films infused with patriotic themes—although with options increasingly limited and critical film sites often blocked, it’s hard to gauge genuine opinion. “Being patriotic is fashionable,” wrote one Chinese student on her blog while studying abroad. “I don’t want to be the uncool person in my generation.” Directors are playing into the dependable formula, dropping social commentary for patriotic fanfare. A cohort of up-and-coming directors like Peter Chan, Stephen Chow, and John Wu have moved away from genre films aimed at global appeal to produce films exclusively for the Chinese market.

Stars behind and in front of the camera are chasing and propelling the trend.

Stars behind and in front of the camera are chasing and propelling the trend. “Popular Chinese actors are converting in droves to serve as red avatars that instill positive energy in the audience,” reported an article in state-run tabloid Global Times about the industry’s patriotic makeover. Celebrity actress Fan Bingbing posted an image on Weibo of a map of China including Taiwan and the “nine-dash line” with the hashtag “China, not even a dot can be missing.” Her overt support of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea came on the heels of an apology after she was accused of evading taxes and disappeared from the public’s eye for three months in 2018.

This year has made clear the state’s near absolute control of an industry not typically at the forefront of discussions about unfair business and trade practices. Disney’s much anticipated live-action Mulan met chilly reception in China, where the poem on which the film is based originated 1,500 years ago. Just like its animated predecessor in 1998, this year’s Mulan fell far short of its box office predictions, once again crippled by widespread piracy among an onslaught of other charges from U.S. and Chinese audiences alike.

Mulan may be the latest target in the clash of two superpowers, but many of its woes came from features of the Chinese film industry that precede and will outlast the current moment. In 2019, the film’s star Liu Yifei proclaimed her support for the Hong Kong police on Weibo, calling the pro-democracy demonstrations a “shame” for Hong Kong. Her comments—whether genuine or strategic—gave rise to the hashtag #BoycottMulan, which resurged last month when viewers decried the recognition of Xinjiang government entities in the film’s credits. Chinese authorities promptly banned the Mulan hashtag and ordered media outlets not to cover the release.

The state instead threw its weight behind The Eight Hundred, a Chinese war epic that was the first major film to screen in movie theaters since COVID-19 caused months-long closures nationwide. In June 2019, the film was pulled from the Shanghai International Film Festival minutes before its premiere for glorifying the nationalist—not the communist—army in the final scene. Huayi Brothers, at risk of losing its $80 million investment in the film, removed 13 minutes from the film, which granted its grand release this summer. It also helped that the company committed to “integrate party-building work into every aspect and step of the process of film and TV content creation.”

If you come around on their terms, the authorities are usually ready to welcome you back into their good graces. When Disney was expelled from China in 1997, the entertainment titan apologized and hired former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to normalize relations for the second time—but this time between the Magic Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom. “In Chinese law, if you own up to your mistakes, your sentence gets reduced,” a film-industry insider in Beijing told the Washington Post in February 1999. “You have to confess. I think that’s what Disney did.”

The state’s deliberate jostling of the industry has not come without pushback. In the wake of the 2019 tax crackdown, a group of prominent directors wrote in a letter, “We express greatest anger toward some unfair public opinions that stigmatize the entire industry.” Amid the pandemic in June 2020, the vice president of Bona Film Group jumped to his death in Beijing after decrying the government on social media for failing to support the wavering film industry. But dissension rarely lasts as businesspeople consent to the hand-in-glove relationship that paves the way for their future success.

Propaganda is most effective when people are swayed one way but believe they arrived there on their own. Nationalism is most enduring when it bubbles up from the bottom. The production of patriotic cinema is undergoing a similar phenomenon: Producers are making it, and audiences are viewing it on their own accord. And in so doing, a chorus of voices is replaced by a single melody.

Correction, March 15, 2021: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Henry Kissinger as the then-U.S. secretary of state when he was hired by Disney to act as a mediator in 1997; he was a former secretary of state.
Amanda Morrison is a graduate of Princeton University and a 2019-2020 Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, where she studied media control and women's rights activism in China.
Tag: China