China's Industry-Takeover Playbook | Opinion

Once lauded as "a storytelling medium that can...convey American ideals, including free expression itself, to foreign populations around the world," the American film industry has largely abdicated its role in exporting Western values in hopes of catering to a Chinese market that's now vanishing. The allure of a billion new moviegoers made kowtowing to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors seem like a savvy business move, and short-term paydays made selling out seem worth it. But as China has clamped down on market access once again, Hollywood's ordeal now serves as a cautionary tale: China has a playbook for taking over industries, and yours could be next.

In recent years, by dangling access to the world's largest movie market, China successfully co-opted large swaths of Hollywood to export its authoritarian, anti-democratic ideology and values. Conglomerates with ties to the CCP have also snapped up American entertainment properties ranging from movie theater chains to production studios to theme parks.

There are countless examples, both subtle and sweeping, of the CCP's success in the film industry. Paramount Pictures removed the Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise's jacket in trailers for Top Gun: Maverick. Walt Disney Studios changed Iron Man's nemesis from a Chinese-born villain to a British actor, and then added a scene in which a Chinese doctor saves the hero's life. FilmDistrict changed the villains in their Red Dawn remake from Chinese to North Korean. Others have gone out of their way to make China the hero of their films. China's space agency swooped in to save the day for NASA in The Martian. Even the Transformers relied on the CCP's benevolence and firepower to stop invading robots while their U.S. counterparts were portrayed as inept and corrupt.

The swagger and fearless creative control that once defined Hollywood has been abandoned in favor of placating a genocidal regime on the other side of the planet.

American actor John Cena debased himself by apologizing to China in broken Mandarin ahead of the release of the latest Fast and Furious film. His sin? Calling Taiwan a country. Basketball superstar and Space Jam: A New Legacy actor LeBron James, who has been vocal on many domestic social issues, criticized an NBA general manager for daring to express support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. He wouldn't stand for a cable news anchor telling him to "shut up and dribble," but he voluntarily did exactly that for the CCP.

But here's the plot twist.

LeBron's Space Jam still never received a theatrical release in China. Neither did Disney's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or The Eternals, films that relied on Chinese talent in hopes of receiving a wide release and broad support at the Chinese box office.

Chinese authorities' decision to deny market access to even their most sycophantic appeasers signals a new era of Hollywood's relationship with China. The CCP's five-year film plan, released in November, calls for the addition of more than 20,000 new cinema screens dedicated to "People's Cinema" propaganda. This will ensure that 2021, a year in which only three films of American origin made China's top 20, was the new norm, not the exception.

Communist Party of China museum
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 16: A person walks in front of a sculpture of the flag of the Communist Party of China at the Museum of the Communist Party of China on December 16, 2021 in Beijing, China. The museum was officially opened in June 2021, the year the party celebrated the 100th anniversary of its funding. Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

China played the American film industry like a Saturday matinee. The CCP lured Hollywood in with the promise of new moviegoers, controlled and manipulated the content as best it could, acquired the industry's technical and creative expertise over time and built up its own distribution capacity. Now its propaganda films are among the highest grossing movies of all time. It's all quite similar to the way Hollywood unwittingly helped build Netflix by supplying it with content until the streaming service could create original movies and series that compete with the major studios.

In a report on China's film industry ambitions, Caroline Pestel, one of the foremost authorities on forecasting long-term geopolitical and security trends, deftly laid out the CCP's systematic eight-part approach to taking over any industry:

1. Decide to compete in an industry.

2. Attract foreign companies while strictly controlling market access.

3. Force concessions from those companies.

4. Capitalize on foreign innovation to improve Chinese domestic product.

5. Acquire foreign competitors' tools and resources (in this case, theater chains and film production companies).

6. Enact state protections for domestic Chinese companies.

7 Independently produce a competitive Chinese product.

8. Become a global leader in the industry.

With the film industry, China has now reached step number eight.

By abandoning Hollywood's traditional role in projecting American soft power, filmmakers have contributed to the erosion of the very freedom of expression that propelled their entire industry. This has resulted in calls for government action against U.S. companies that comply with CCP censorship demands, a sentiment that will only grow if Hollywood doesn't return to creating content for the people who packed theaters and cheered when Rocky knocked out Drago and Batman snatched a corrupt Chinese businessman out of his office in Hong Kong and left him on the steps of a Gotham police station.

Other industries must take note of the way China manipulated Hollywood and consider whether the CCP is applying its eight-part playbook to target them as well. For example, in a 10-year window, China executed all eight steps in the wind power industry, supplanting the United States as the global leader. Beijing is currently making moves on the U.S. agriculture industry that will have major implications for our food supply chain. It is undoubtedly pursuing numerous other industries, particularly in key technologies that will define the future of our economies, our bilateral relationship and the global order.

U.S. and allied leaders would do well to learn and understand the CCP's playbook, or risk losing a game that they didn't even realize was being played.

John Ratcliffe served as the sixth U.S. Director of National Intelligence. Cliff Sims served as U.S. Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Strategy and Communications.

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