Now history seems to be repeating itself, with the studios kowtowing to Communist China. Granted, Communist China isn’t as bad as Nazi Germany (what is?), but its human rights violations are bad enough. It’s even carrying out what the U.S. State Department has deemed a genocide against the Uyghurs. Yet Hollywood movers and shakers are desperately, pathetically eager to please Beijing.
John Cena, star of the new Fast and Furious movie, just issued an abject apology for casually referring to Taiwan as a “country.” That’s anathema to the Chinese Communist Party, which insists that the island is merely a renegade province. “I’m very sorry for my mistakes,” he said in Mandarin, even though he hadn’t made a mistake — Taiwan really is an independent country. Cena had reason to grovel — if the Chinese regime were offended, it could ban “F9” from what in 2020 became the largest movie market in the world.
Cena has no desire to join the list of performers blacklisted by China. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and the South Korean pop group BTS were just cut by Chinese censors from the version of “Friends: The Reunion” shown in that country: Lady Gaga because she met with the Dalai Lama, Bieber because he was photographed at the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead (including war criminals), and BTS because the band’s leader paid tribute to the shared sacrifices of Americans and South Koreans in the Korean War without honoring Chinese troops who fought on the other side.
The Chinese director Chloé Zhao has landed on Beijing’s blacklist because of an old interview in which she said there were “lies everywhere” when she was growing up in China. In retaliation Beijing censored news of her historic Oscar win for “Nomadland.” Now there is doubt as to whether China will allow the release of “Eternals,” the $200 million Marvel movie that Zhao is directing.
Because being excluded from China can be so costly, studios will alter their movies to avoid incurring the wrath of its censors. A report from Pen America last year offered some examples: Paramount removed from “World War Z” (2013) any mention that the zombie plague had originated in China. Marvel changed the protagonist’s mentor in “Dr. Strange” (2016) from a Tibetan to a Celt. Skydance Media erased a Taiwanese flag patch from Tom Cruise’s jacket in the upcoming “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Producers will also add scenes to curry favor with Beijing. The Bruce Willis science-fiction picture “Looper” (2012) included a character saying, “I’m from the future. You should go to China.” The animated film “Abominable” (2019) included China’s “nine-dash line” map claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea. Both movies were joint U.S.-Chinese productions.
The worst consequence of Chinese censorship is not what gets made but what doesn’t. Just as studios once avoided making anti-Nazi movies, now they avoid making any movies that cast the Communist Party’s rule in a negative light. According to Pen America, it would now be impossible to make a film like “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997) about China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet. Nor do most Hollywood bigshots, who never hesitate to criticize injustice in the United States, have anything to say about the far more grievous human rights abuses in China.
The writer-director Judd Apatow — one of the few in Hollywood brave enough to speak out — summed up the situation in an MSNBC interview: “Instead of us doing business with China and that leading to China being more free, what has happened is that China has bought our silence with their money.”
This is a disgrace, but it’s not clear what can be done about it. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) wants to force studios to disclose whether their movies had been altered “to fit the demands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wants to require any studio that seeks Defense Department cooperation to promise not to comply with Chinese censorship. The problem is that such laws might move preemptive self-censorship deeper into the development process, where it would be even harder to spot. Perhaps the studios, like Internet giants such as Netflix and Google, should simply stay out of China — but that would mean losing out on not only significant revenue for a major U.S. export industry but also the possibility of educating Chinese moviegoers about life in the free world.
Ultimately the only way out of this dilemma is for the studios to show greater backbone in resisting censorship. Maybe they should imagine how they would react if they were being censored by Republican legislators rather than Communist apparatchiks. Sadly, the movie titans, for all their professed devotion to progressive ideals, can almost always be counted upon to put profit over principle.