China uses Hollywood in its Information Warfare Campaign | Opinion

Does cinema offer China a powerful vehicle for reaching audiences across the globe–audiences who might be amenable to accepting China's communist values and vision of a new world order with China at its center? Chinese President Xi Jinping is already firing up the popcorn cannon.

On track to surpass the U.S. as the world's largest movie box office market, China uses its control regarding which foreign films enter its lucrative market, its investments in and co-production of Hollywood films and its acquisitions of U.S. film distribution and production studio assets to burnish its image and advance its ideological worldview.

Movies create convincing narratives that directly impact what people believe. Xi is determined to use film to promote China "as a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and an upholder of international order."

The manipulation of cinema has been an explicit part of Beijing's "media warfare" strategy for years. "Their view of national security involves preemption in the world of ideas," says former CIA analyst Peter Mattis. "The whole point ... is to preclude or preempt decisions that would go against the People's Republic of China."

To win one of the coveted 34 annual film slots allotted for foreign films in China, Hollywood studios willingly submit to increasingly onerous and often capricious censorship from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Ministry of Propaganda, which oversees foreign film distribution in China. Chinese censors eliminate anything casting China in a bad light and encourage positivity about China, its people, government and culture.

Hollywood producers obediently alter storylines, settings, characters and casting to satisfy Beijing. An outdoor scene in Shanghai showing laundry drying was deleted from Mission: Impossible – Fallout for making China appear backward. Red Dawn was digitally edited to make the villains North Korean, not Chinese. To improve its chances for a Chinese release, Sony preemptively cut or trimmed several scenes—including a shot of aliens bringing down the Great Wall—from its worldwide release of the 2015 movie Pixels. The 2019 film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was pulled from China's movie release because of its insufficient heroic depiction of Bruce Lee.

Richard Gere, an advocate for Tibetan independence from China, hasn't been in a major Hollywood blockbuster for the last 20 years. "There are definitely movies that I can't be in because the Chinese will say, 'Not with him.'"

China even blacklists American studios for producing films intended for non-Chinese markets that present China in ways the censors oppose. USC specialist in Chinese politics professor Stanley Rosen commented, "Don't think that if you're doing an Indie film meant for a small market ... that China won't notice and ... it won't hurt your blockbuster film. It will."

If you watch a Hollywood film today, there's a good chance it was at least partially financed by China.

Chinese flag
The flag of the People's Republic of China flies in the wind above the Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in San Francisco, California, on July 23, 2020. PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images

Chinese partners have invested tens of billions of dollars in Hollywood films over the past decade. Paramount, Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation SKG and Disney welcome Chinese investors who make sure that Hollywood complies with Chinese censors and adheres to pro-China messaging. "They do not want the world ... to see Tom Cruise's jacket in Top Gun: Maverick because it has the Taiwanese and Japanese flags on the back," remarked Chris Fenton, long-time Hollywood producer. "Paramount ... said 'fine, we will cut that out ... for the China market.' China said, 'No, no, no, ... not just for the China market, we do not want that seen anywhere in the world.'" China's Tencent Pictures co-produced the Paramount film.

Hollywood studios can bypass China's annual 34-film quota by co-producing films with Chinese production companies, offering Beijing another opportunity to embed its political messaging. The 2014 Paramount-China Movie Channel film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, depicted Americans in unflattering tones while featuring the selflessness of its Chinese characters. One reviewer called it "a splendidly patriotic film, if you happen to be Chinese." Abominable, a DreamWorks Animation-Pearl Studio film, included a scene that endorses Beijing's territorial claims to the South China Sea.

China has taken advantage of America's lax regulatory system to acquire American film-related businesses. Dalian Wanda Group, a real estate and entertainment conglomerate owned by long time CCP member Wang Jianlin, has spent nearly $10 billion to acquire American companies including AMC Entertainment, Carmike Cinemas and Legendary Entertainment.

Wanda's AMC-Carmike combination is the largest theater chain in America and Wanda is now the world's largest owner of movie screens. Wanda's purchase of Legendary makes it one of the world's biggest movie production players. Wang said, "My goal is to buy Hollywood companies and bring their technology and capability to China," where he is developing a huge film production facility incorporating Hollywood standards.

Wanda is an example of how a Chinese firm can become a proxy for a totalitarian government's geopolitical objectives. Wang believes the only way to win hearts and minds is through culture, one of America's most important exports. Therefore, he wants more Chinese films in theaters, spreading China's soft power, its culture—China's influence—worldwide.

China's tech titan Tencent has also invested in movie studio STX Entertainment, while Alibaba has a minority stake in Steven Spielberg's Amblin Partners.

This Chinese partnering has given them "access" to knowledge about plotlines, character development, soundtracks and visual effects. Skilled American film production professionals have migrated into the Chinese domestic film industry, helping China leapfrog on our 100-year advantage in the business.

President Xi employs cinema information warfare just as he uses his Belt and Road Initiative, Confucius Institutes, cyber disinformation and efforts to "turn" foreign journalists and politicians, to further his ambition of replacing America as the world's superpower.

China is not the first communist regime to understand the geopolitical importance of film. Over half a century ago, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin said, "If I could control the medium of the American motion picture, I would need nothing else to convert the entire world to communism."

Ziva Dahl is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.