“Taiwan will be the first country to see Fast & Furious 9. This movie is really great — and it’s huge. … You’ll be the first to see the film,” Cena said, speaking in Mandarin and upsetting Chinese users of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. Cena quickly apologized for the “gaffe,” but that apparently wasn’t enough: Chinese fans called for a more formal apology that explicitly repudiated Taiwan’s status as a free nation and declared the island under the control of China.
That Cena has learned conversational Mandarin at all — not an easy language to pick up — is a fascinating little subplot here, one that reveals the importance of the Middle Kingdom as an exploding market for entertainment products. As nerd blog Bleeding Cool noted, Cena’s proficiency came in handy during his press tour for “Bumblebee” and has been a useful skill as World Wrestling Entertainment attempts to make inroads in China. Cena, ever the competitor, has one-upped fellow wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson in his effort to become the most marketable star in the world.
Yet, it’s this very skill that has landed Cena in hot water. As anyone familiar with the politics of an authoritarian state will tell you, disrespecting the dictatorship in English might get a pass, but when you do so in the language of the people, the government takes extra notice.
Cena’s backtracking on this issue is disheartening but not surprising: China, through its commercial power, is able to demand extraordinary concessions like this all the time. A couple of years back, observers were shocked to find the inclusion of China’s preferred “nine-dash line” map in the children’s animated film “Abominable.” While the image undoubtedly passed without notice by most audiences in America, the nine-dash line represents China’s disputed — some would say, starkly illegal — territorial claim to the waters of the South China Sea.
And, of course, there’s the defacing of Maverick’s costume in the “Top Gun” sequel: The legendary movie pilot’s flight jacket no longer includes patches from Taiwan or Japan, a sop to Chinese financier Tencent, which backed the picture. This petty act of vandalism was so egregious that it inspired the introduction of legislation by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to fight Chinese censorship.
But Hollywood seems to have decided en masse that such embarrassments are a small price to pay for access to the lucrative Chinese market for film studios and their stars. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has described these episodes of bowing and scraping as a “values tariff,” an effort at using market power not for financial gain but for intellectual and ideological dominance on certain issues.
“Every piece of content that is critical of the government, or dubious of its claims about Tibet, or Taiwan, or Tiananmen Square, or Xinjiang, is subject to grave financial punishment. It amounts to a kind of ‘values tariff’ on the companies and individuals with which China does business,” Thompson wrote in 2019. “That is, rather than [x] percent tax on imported goods in China, companies must compromise [x] percent of their values to do business in China.”
Thompson was writing about the abject failure of the NBA and outspoken stars such as LeBron James to stand up for the rights of protesters in Hong Kong or Uyghurs in Xinjiang — indeed, about their efforts to actively quash discussion of said issues by braver folks such as then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
But Hollywood is no different and no better. As the Hollywood Reporter noted at length last week, China exercises a remarkable amount of power over what can be said not only to Chinese audiences about China but also to American audiences about China.
Perhaps now is a good time for the Biden administration to make more explicit its aim of supporting Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression. Between the dispatch of an unofficial delegation to the island and hints that the era of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to the United States’ stance on military aid to Taiwan in the event of Chinese military action against Taiwan are coming to an end, Biden has signaled that the United States is more on Taiwan’s side than ever.
Then again, the wheels of diplomacy turn slowly. Perhaps it will be left to President Dwayne Johnson to restore the honor of Taiwanese ambassador John Cena at some later date. Only time will tell if Hollywood can find the courage to tell the truth abroad as well as at home.