FOR BETTER or worse, Dick Clark Productions, which brings TV viewers such extravaganzas as the Golden Globes and the American Music Awards, is a major force in popular culture. But is its ownership also a matter of national strategic importance? The answer, according to a growing number of U.S. officials and entertainment industry observers, is maybe.
That’s because the would-be buyer is Dalian Wanda, a Chinese conglomerate whose chairman’s Communist Party membership and close ties to President Xi Jinping’s government in Beijing make it a private firm only in a nominal sense. Dalian Wanda has already bought Legendary Entertainment (“Jurassic World”), along with the biggest cinema chain in the United States, and has set its sights on a “Big 6” Hollywood studio. If fully executed, this acquisition strategy could give Dalian Wanda, and by extension its patrons in Beijing, influence over not only the distribution of films but also their content.
To be sure, we’ve seen this movie before — and it didn’t have an unhappy ending. Roughly a quarter-century ago, Japanese firms spent billions of their surplus dollars to take over Columbia Pictures and Universal, amid much media hand-wringing about an Asian “invasion” of Hollywood. The Japanese took financial losses and were forced to retreat. The same might happen to Dalian Wanda. Still, there is a fundamental difference between today’s Chinese buying spree and the Japanese prequel: Japan is a strategic ally of the United States and a democracy committed to free expression. China, by contrast, is adversarial and ruled by a dictator, Mr. Xi, who has openly declared a global propaganda agenda, based on the idea that “Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China.”
China already has imposed its censorious values on Hollywood studios, using access to its lucrative but strictly limited market (where Dalian Wanda also controls many theaters) as leverage. This is a government that banned not only “To Live,” a Chinese-made drama critical of the upheavals in China under communism, but also “Ghostbusters,” because it purportedly promotes “superstition.” Not only does Beijing seek to impose its censor’s rules on American films, but it also refuses foreign investors the same access to Chinese media and entertainment industries that Dalian Wanda enjoys in the United States. It is not far-fetched to assume that China would seek to spread pro-regime propaganda via ownership of U.S. entertainment media.
For all its deficiencies, both substantive and stylistic, the United States’ entertainment industry is a monument to free expression; as such, it is an element of this nation’s “soft power” and should not be sold off unquestioningly to foreign interests that do not share the United States’ commitment to artistic freedom. Last month, 16 members of Congress from both parties asked the Government Accountability Office to study existing legal authorities regarding foreign investment in the United States, with a view toward possibly adjusting them in light of developments such as Dalian Wanda’s bid for the commanding heights of American popular culture. These elected officials are right to be concerned.