10 Times China Strong-Armed the Entertainment Industry

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The People’s Republic of China and its dominant party, the Chinese Communist Party, can be  trickier to place on the political compass than it might seem. While it’s famous for state-owned businesses, in 2019 the National Bureau of Statistics reported that 84% of its businesses are privately owned, which was part of a 78% uptick since 2013.

While it’s far enough to the left on social issues that there is a 95.1% healthcare coverage rate as of 2013 (in America it’s closer to 91.5% as of 2018), it also is very unfriendly to LGBTQ rights, and we’ll see examples of this shortly. Wherever it fits in terms of economics and social issues, when it comes to published media, the People’s Republic of China does not pull punches. From sports to esports to broadcasts, nothing is too seemingly innocuous or too influential to escape government controls. 

10. Red Dawn Changes

Today the 1984 John Milius film Red Dawn is considered a bit campy and implausible, if nuanced in its anti-war message, but still it struck a sufficient chord with audiences that it was a box office hit and resonated enough that a major military operation was named after it for America’s disastrous War in Iraq. Even pretty naive moviegoers in the 1980s could feel how implausible it would be for a nation as large as the USA to fall to the USSR through conventional warfare, even with Mexico and Cuba’s help. The Cuban Missile Crisis was all the evidence anyone needed that nuclear deterrence made any such war unthinkable. But when the film was remade in 2012, changes that were made to please the PRC made the original look like a model of plausibility. 

From pressure by the Chinese market, the invaders in the remake were changed from China to North Korea. About the only way anyone could claim this change makes the least sense would be because North Korea has a standing army of roughly 1.2 million troops, but how the nation would get them on US soil when it’s a country whose biggest military accomplishment in recent years is that its missiles can reach Japan is a question the movie doesn’t come close to answering believably. This probably wasn’t the sole reason the remake was a box office failure, but it couldn’t have helped.     

9. Overruling Warner Brothers

In 2018 Legendary Entertainment, which as of 2016 was owned by Chinese Communist Party member Wang Jianlin, partnered with Warner Brothers Studios. While it has generally been a very lucrative arrangement. Still in 2021 the partners began a bitter argument over the distribution of Godzilla Vs. Kong. Warner Brothers planned to release it directly to HBO Max, a decision which was arrived at without consulting Legendary Entertainment. 

Not only did Godzilla Vs Kong turn out to be simultaneously released in theaters and on HBO Max, but only after HBO Max agreed to pay $250 million for it. The film went on to make $442 worldwide, which made it the one of the first box office smashes since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It went to show that not all decisions made under the direction of the CCP don’t work out. 

8. The Apology

He may be a 17-time world champion wrestler, but John Cena decided in 2021 that he wasn’t about to tussle with the wrath of mainland China or his fans there. During an announcement regarding the theatrical distribution of Fast 9, Cena referred to Taiwan, with its infamously contentious relationship with China, as “the first nation” that the movie would be screened in. This went against the narrative the People’s Republic of China is insisting that Taiwan is as much part of China as Hawaii is a state in the USA, or at least as much as Guam is a US territory. 

Cena took to the Chinese site Weibo and recorded an apology video, speaking in the Mandarin Chinese he’d spent years learning. To date, there haven’t been any further significant developments and the movie went on to considerable box office success in China and Taiwan. It’s still one of the most uncomfortable reactions to pressure from a foreign power leading to kowtowing from professional wrestling since the WWE endorsed the nation of Saudi Arabia.   

7. The Looper Rewrite

2012 was really the year that the Chinese government made its influence felt on American screenplays. Under Dan Mintz of Dynamic Marketing Group’s direction, Rian Johnson’s screenplay for the film Looper was rewritten so that a scene set in Paris, France in the distant future of 2074 was moved to Shanghai. This was to ensure that the film got around the PRC’s foreign film limits for theatrical distribution. 

It’s also worth noting that DMG also guided the script from including any cultural stereotypes and cliches (street lanterns, “Chinatown” architecture, and so on). A failure to do so was disastrous for Men in Black 3, which was barred from theatrical distribution in China. Considering that Looper grossed more in China than it did domestically, that could have cost the sci-fi sequel dearly indeed.

6. Mulan Issues 

Mulan was one of the most critically-panned films of 2020, with even second generation critics such as Walter Chaw tearing it a new one for being simultaneously pandering, shallow, and dull. But truly, the greatest issue many had with the film was offscreen. And for certain authority figures, that didn’t leave the issue nearly out of sight or out of mind enough. 

A total of 78 seconds of the live action remake were filmed in Xinjiang Province, near the much-publicized re-education camps Uyghur Muslims were held in. As per domestic policy, the production had been required to partner with a local film company to shoot and distribute in China. Eight government agencies were thanked in the film’s credits. But what many found hardest to ignore was when star Liu Yifei made a statement in support of the police crackdowns in Hong Kong. It’s like the production couldn’t decide if it was more important to be a financial or a public relations disaster.


5. Sports Aren’t Safe

It’s not just athletes like John Cena with his innocent gaffe who have to worry about Chinese backlash. On October 4, 2019, long before Liu Yifei spoke in favor of the Hong Kong crackdowns, then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the protestors. This gained an especially high amount of attention as the NBA had a number of exhibition games going on in China at the time, and it had turned out that a NBA training camp had been built near the Xinjiang internment camps. LeBron James was called upon to comment, and on October 9 he said that Morey’s tweet was poorly timed and that he had made the tweet without fully educating himself on the issue. This was felt to be so subservient to the PRC that LeBron James was dragged for it years later when tweeted that another police officer would be held accountable after Derek Chauvin’s conviction. 

The day after LeBron James’s comment, it was noted that ESPN had a broadcast which featured a map of China. Sharp-eyed viewers noted that Taiwan was included in the highlighted area despite the controversy regarding its sovereignty. ESPN did not comment on the use of the map, leaving many to assume the worst.       

4. The Celebrity Crackdowns

Celebrity culture might seem too immaterial of an industry for the PRC to regulate very firmly, but there certainly have been a number of efforts in that direction recently. Beginning on June 8, 2017, a large number of celebrity news blogs and social media accounts were shut down. There was little consideration for backlash from banning accounts of size and influence: One gossip account by a Zhuo Wei had more than seven million followers and still went down. 

The PRC also cracked down on attempts to use social media influence to manipulate children for financial purposes. For example in May 2021 the reality program Youth Without You was shut down by the government because it was found that the show was secretly pushing products by the show’s sponsors on its young audience. Music groups such as Panda Boys have had to change their designation to “children’s art trope” for being too young to not appeal mainly to children. Imagine One Direction being told that they were too young and thus couldn’t advertise themselves as a “boy band.”  

On August 27, 2021, The Guardian reported that the PRC had banned sites which ranked celebrities by popularity. The justification largely boiled down to claims that such sites were creating too much fan rivalry and leading to intolerable amounts of online bullying, particularly among impressionable youth. There’s no explanation needed for why we here strongly object to any effort which bans lists! 

3. Gaming Restrictions

On September 1, 2021, it was reported that the PRC would be limiting the number of hours of online gaming that those under 18 could undertake to three per week. Or rather, per weekend since it’s only one hour per day Friday through Sunday, specifically from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. There would be time carved out for public holidays too, though you’d think that would be when the PRC would most want kids to be with their families or communities instead of trying to do 360 no scope headshots.  Penalties would only be inflicted on the companies instead of the underage players, which seemed like it would make massive workarounds almost inevitable. 

While this might have seemed out of the blue and arbitrary for many Westerners, for Chinese children it was more an escalation than an out of the blue restriction. On April 10, 2020, China banned the online game Animal Crossing. Apparently deciding that didn’t go nearly far enough, on April 16 of that year, the ban expanded to include all online games including zombies, doomsday, ghosts, and evil in general. All game chat rooms and customizations were to be strictly monitored. Anti-gaming advocate Jack Thompson must be feeling at least a little envious.  

2. Nanfu Wong’s Career

As far as the world of documentary filmmaking goes, the PRC probably has no higher profile and cutting critic than Nanfu Wong. In 2019, she released a documentary on the disastrous One Child policy called One Child Nation. The film won the prestigious Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and yet Chinese media censored all references to it being shortlisted for an Academy Award. 

Apparently deciding that wasn’t provocative enough, in 2021, she released In the Same Breath, which went in depth about how the PRC bungled the initial containment of Covid-19, how it arrested doctors that tried to warn the public, how it downplayed the spread and the human cost. In response, not only was Wong threatened by the government, but her family which lived in China. Even during the production her crews would follow around activists and get arrested. As Adam Johnston said in his review of her latest film, presumably she’ll never go back to China again. 

1. No “Girly Guns” on TV

For those who aren’t keeping up to date on Chinese slurs, “girly guns” is a phrase for effeminate men. On September 1, 2021, the National Radio and TV Administration announced that such men were to be banned as part of an effort to remove “abnormal aesthetics” from the national media. AP News speculated that this was intended to blunt the influence that music stars from Japan and South Korea were having.

In something of a callback to our third entry, on September 9, the PRC ordered gaming companies such as Tencent to remove all effeminate content from their games. Considering that games such as Fortnite intentionally included such male characters to appeal to a broader audience and discourage a culture of harassment (albeit it with reportedly limited success in terms of the latter) this could prove especially disastrous for the gaming giant. 

Dustin Koski can be followed on Twitter, though not so much in China since the site is blocked there.


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