SCENE 01: THE CHINA PROBLEM SEAN The entertainment industry in America has a big problem. It's complicated and it's going to be incredibly difficult to solve, but if we don't, it could threaten freedom of expression for creators all over the world. We have... a China problem. CLIP: South Park "Band in China" TITLES SEAN Welcome to Out of Frame. SEAN As far-removed as it seems from the days of Chairman Mao and the brutal, tragically-misnamed "Great Leap Forward" of the 1950s and 60s that left 45 million people dead in just 4 years, China is still ruled by the same Communist Party. And although its people are much freer than they used to be in a lot of ways, one thing remains hopelessly unchanged: China's government hates free speech. By now, I'm sure you've heard about the on-going protests happening in Hong Kong. I'm sure you're also aware that several American businesses have effectively taken sides in that conflict. As China's Communist Party cracks down on the protesters and tries to prevent them from communicating their message online, there's a ton of pressure on foreign companies to do what the Chinese government wants if they want to do business in the country. CLIP: South Park "Band in China" RANDY MARSH "I'm a proud member of the Communist Party. The party is more important than the individual." We see news articles and video footage corresponding to the various stories. SEAN In order to placate the Chinese government, Apple recently took down an app that protesters in Hong Kong were using to track the police. Vans shoe company pulled a winning entry from an online design competition for featuring symbols of the Hong Kong protests. Activision's Blizzard Entertainment suspended Ng Wai "Blitzchung" Chung, one of their professional "Hearthstone" grandmasters, for saying "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age" in an interview. Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey made the horrible mistake of tweeting his support for Hong Kong, and the NBA immediately released a statement in Chinese, saying that they were "extremely disappointed" by his "inappropriate remarks". The NBA's commissioner, Adam Silver backtracked a bit later, saying that they supported Morey's right to express an opinion. CLIP: Adam Silver's statement. ADAM SILVER "There are consequences to his exercise of free speech, and I guess we will have to live with those consequences." SEAN China's state-run CCTV network replied by saying: “We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech” Funny how that works, right? CCTV then blocked scheduled NBA exhibition games from airing in China, so the NBA is already experiencing the consequences of defending free speech. This is all big news, but the real problem is so much bigger than a few weeks of trending stories on social media. China's government plays an increasingly significant role in the American entertainment industry, not only as a huge distribution market for sports, games, and big-budget blockbusters... It's also a major source of financing. SCENE 02: CHINA GOES TO THE MOVIES SEAN As China allowed their citizens more autonomy over their property and made it easier for individuals to start businesses and trade with other people around the world, their whole country has gotten wealthier. Frasier Economic Freedom ranking: We see China's rank in global economic freedom. Their economy is a long way from having anything you could consider to be a "free market", but it is far more free than it was even a few decades ago. And it's opened up more and more to the rest of the world ever since Richard Nixon brokered some of the first trade deals with China in 1972. SEAN I've said it again and again on this series, but economic freedom and prosperity are inextricably linked. The more free a society is, the higher their people's incomes tend to be. Even under British rule, the people of Hong Kong maintained a high degree of political autonomy and economic freedom and never joined mainland China in its glorious "cultural revolution". SEAN And so... Though they started in roughly the same place... China stagnated in continuous poverty throughout the 20th century, while Hong Kong prospered. To this day, Hong Kong has the most free economy in the world... And one of the wealthiest. It's also had 50 years of cultural freedom that China didn't get. Even still... China's move away from a communist, centrally-planned command economy towards more private property and free trade over the past few decades lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. SEAN For the first time in a century, a lot of mainland Chinese people have disposable income... And just like people in other parts of the world, they like to use some of that income to go to the movies. I don't know how I could see that as anything but a good thing. Unfortunately, China's rising prosperity and freer economy has not coincided with more political or individual freedom in other areas of life. Even though it's now possible for private citizens to own their own businesses - and we should not forget how big of a deal that is - everything they do is still subject to approval and control by the government. And herein lies the rub. SCENE 03: PROPAGANDA AND PRODUCT PLACEMENT SEAN In the last few years alone, Chinese film financing companies have contributed billions of dollars to the American film industry, buying large shares and forming partnerships with studios like Sony Pictures, Legendary, and AMC. And in exchange for China's money and access to the audiences films can reach in new markets like Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzen, film studios have made numerous creative changes for the Chinese market and concessions for its government censors. A lot of these have been pretty easy to spot. In Marvel's Dr. Strange, "The Ancient One" changed from being a Tibetan man to a Celtic women, because China doesn't recognize the sovereignty of Tibet. In Iron Man 3, "The Mandarin" went from being a Chinese criminal mastermind to a puppet of the real villain... a literal actor named Trevor Slattery. X-Men: Days of Future Past took a detour to Hong Kong, for an extended sequence with the character "Blink", played by the Chinese movie star Fan Bingbing. In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Chow Yun-Fat's character was cut from the Chinese release because the government won't allow Chinese people to be shown as pirates. World War Z made sweeping changes to the plot from its source material, including changing the source of the zombie outbreak from China to Russia. Everybody hates the Russians though, so that's ok, right? It's also still ok to hate North Koreans who don't go to the movies, so the remake of Red Dawn actually spent millions of dollars swapping out Chinese military flags and uniforms for a North Korean army in post-production. That is... After the movie had already been shot. Even Independence Day: Resurgence, which kinda seems like it would be the most "American" movie of all time featured an appearance from the Chinese actress Angelababy and a ton of product placement. CLIPS: Transformers 4: Age of Extinction SEAN But no film I can think of has been more blatant about incorporating Chinese propaganda than Transformers: Age of Extinction. Apart from taking the plot to China for no apparent reason whatsoever, the film features dozens of instances of Chinese product placement, has an action-packed cameo for famous boxer Zou Shiming, and presents Communist Party bureaucrats as hyper-competent angels whose heroic actions save the day. Age of Extinction was co-financed by the Chinese company Jiaflix Enterprises and the state-run China Movie Channel. And... Here's where this all gets complicated. SCENE 04: COMPLICATIONS SEAN There's nothing wrong with wanting to appeal to a new audience. Why shouldn't film studios do their best to produce movies that millions of people in China might want to watch? The point of commercial film production is to make money by making art, and any good entrepreneurial endeavor starts with paying attention to what people actually want and trying to provide it for them. Studios make decisions like this all the time. They cast someone like Jennifer Lawrence or Scarlet Johansson in movies like X-Men or the Avengers not only because they're good actors, but also because their fame helps the movie attract viewers. The Rock might be the hardest working man in Hollywood right now, and if you're looking to cast a charming human tank with a good sense of humor, he'd be a great choice... But it also doesn't hurt that he has almost 160 million followers on Instagram. And we can't really fault movies like Transformers for Chinese product placement without recognizing hilariously blatant instances of the same on behalf of western companies like Rolls Royce, Budweiser, or Beats by Dr. Dre. CLIP: Transformers 4 STANLEY TUCCI "You like music? The Pill." SEAN We have to be careful not to begrudge Hollywood for simply making movies that new audiences in other countries might actually want to watch. And we should understand that product placement and advertising tie ins are often the tradeoff studios have to accept in order afford the big-budget movies we all love going to see. But we also have to recognize that there's a massive difference between product placement in the context of a relatively free market economy... and state propaganda. Dr. Dre can't shut a movie down for not showcasing his latest headphones. Chevy can't prevent a movie from being shown in an entire country just because a Toyota shows up in the background. Even the Pentagon, which spends billions of dollars a year financing Hollywood movies in exchange for epic flyover shots and heroic portrayals of US soldiers, still can't dictate which movies you or I get to see. If they could, I'm sure Battleship wouldn't have flopped. But that's exactly what happens in China. SCENE 05: CENSORSHIP IS THE PROBLEM SEAN Over the past few years, China has built tens of thousands of brand new movie theaters. It may soon have more than the United States... If it doesn't already. And yet... Just 38 American movies are allowed be imported and screened in Chinese theaters each year. 38. And the Communist Party decides which make the cut. For major studios, this can mean hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, so there are huge incentives to appease the Chinese government. Anything that is even remotely critical of the state, or presents Chinese people negatively in any way is unacceptable. But it doesn't end there. Movies like Deadpool, The Departed, Django Unchained or Suicide Squad were banned in China for excessive violence. Ghostbusters, Crimson Peak, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest were banned for depicting ghosts. Back to the Future has "dangerous fictional elements" like time travel, so that's out. The original Top Gun and Captain Phillips present the US Military positively, so that's unacceptable. And the new Top Gun sequel removed Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise's iconic flight jacket to secure financing from the Chinese distribution company, Tencent. James Cameron's Avatar depicts a native uprising against an occupying force, so of course Chinese citizens can't be allowed to see that. Ben Hur supports Christianity. Brokeback Mountain is about a couple of gay cowboys. Memoirs of a Geisha had the gall to feature Chinese actors playing Japanese characters. Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life apparently just made China look bad. All banned. China's government banned Seven Years in Tibet for acknowledging the existence of Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and rumor has it, Brad Pitt wasn't even allowed in China for 20 years over his role in the film. SEAN And of course, after South Park's recent "Band in China" episode... No more Cartman. CLIP: South Park CARTMAN "Respect my AUTHORITAHH!" SEAN No thanks, Communists... CLIP: Avengers: End Game STEVE ROGERS "I don't think I will." SCENE 06: CONCLUSION SEAN At its very core, the point of every dramatic art form, from books and movies to TV and video games is to express the artists' ideas and emotions, and connect with an audience. This can't happen without freedom of speech. We all have the right to say whatever is on our minds, and to decide for ourselves who to listen to and what beliefs to accept or reject. But there is nothing an authoritarian government hates more. Because... They're afraid. We see a comparative image of President Xi and Winnie the Pooh. SEAN The idea that individuals might have their own thoughts and ideas, or that someone might criticize the government officials that dictate and control their lives is terrifying. The only way the Communist Party can maintain its power over billions of Chinese citizens is by making sure they're never exposed to the ideas and values that might set them free. But I think to some degree, the cat's already out of the bag. CLIP: Firefly MR. UNIVERSE "You can't stop the signal, Mal." SEAN By reintegrating Hong Kong back into the People's Republic of China, the Communist Party perhaps unwittingly brought in millions of people who know what it's like to be allowed to speak their minds without fear of arrest or punishment. They brought in millions of people who know what it's like to be allowed to make their own choices on what movies and TV shows to watch, what books to read, what games to play, and who know that all of China's restrictions make them poorer and more miserable. But that doesn't mean everything is ok. B-ROLL: Anti-free speech protests in the US, etc. SEAN As support for free speech declines in the United States, as our government acts more and more like China increasing our own restrictions on international commerce, and as our entertainment and media companies choose to appease Communist Party censorship instead of challenging it, the future is uncertain. SEAN But... It's up to us. We have the power to support freedom of expression and refuse to live by rules set by oppressive regimes... We have the power to connect with people from all over the world and help them stand up for these values in their own countries. We have the power to make our voices heard, even when people in China do not. We have the power. So let's use it. CTA: SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you want to know more about the stuff I talked about, check out some of the links in the description or leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you. If you want to see more Out of Frame content, ring the bell and get regular notifications when we upload new videos. In the meantime, if you're a fan of free expression and entrepreneurship and want a weekly dose of inspiration, check out FEE's newest series, Revolution of One. We've just started a new spin-off channel for all of that kind of content going forward, and if that's something you're into, definitely head over there and subscribe as well. That link is in the description, too. Plus, as always, check out for all the other content we're producing at FEE, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

China Doesn't Want You to Watch This Video

November 7, 2019

The entertainment industry in America has a big problem... Chinese censorship. China is a make or break market for Hollywood movies, and a major player in film financing. But the audiences and money come with strings attached. China's Communist Party picks and chooses what its people are able to watch, and what's deemed acceptable ranges from laughable to enraging. In this episode of Out of Frame, we look at how China influences our entertainment and how we can fight back.

Produced by Sean W. Malone
Written by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone

-- New Series: Revolution of One --

-- Chinese Influence on US Entertainment -- -- Chineses Economic History --

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