But some Hollywood studios don’t even wait for the Chinese censors. Anxious about the Chinese response, the Brad Pitt film World War Z dropped the film’s reference to a worldwide plague of zombies originating in China. Red Dawn was a 1980s cult classic about Soviet troops that invade the U.S. and a group of teens that wage guerilla warfare against them. When MGM remade the film last year, the invaders were Chinese — at least until the film was released. Apparently to appease the Chinese, MGM spent $1 million on digitally erasing all Chinese symbols from military uniforms and vehicles, and replacing them with North Korean ones. Apparently the Pyongyang box office isn’t big enough to worry about offending.
No film is too big to avoid micromanagement. When Titanic 3D was submitted to the Chinese censors, they insisted that a scene in which Kate Winslet appears unclothed show her only from the neck up.
But director James Cameron sounded blasé
about the censorship in an interview with the New York Times
last year: “As an artist, I’m always against censorship. But censorship’s a reality, even in the U.S. . . . I can’t be judgmental about another culture’s process. I don’t think that’s healthy.”
The slightly taken-aback Times reporter later followed up: “Did you talk to other filmmakers — your peers — about Chinese censorship?
Cameron’s stunning response: “No. I’m not interested in their reality. My reality is that I’ve made two films in the last 15 years that both have been resounding successes here [in China], and this is an important market for me. And so I’m going to do what’s necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I’m going to play by the rules that are internal to this market. Because you have to.” The Hollywood studio executives of the 1930s put it just about as plainly in their dealings with the Nazis, according to Ben Urwand’s book.
The “reality” faced by Chinese artists and filmmakers is dire indeed. Last April, the Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang was honored by the China Film Directors Guild. Normally not one to rock any boats, Feng used his acceptance speech to rail against the “great torment” of censorship in China. He recently had his name removed from the credits of his new film, Mystery, to protest censorship directives placed on it. It’s no surprise that Feng’s attack on censorship was itself censored when it aired on Chinese television.
James Cameron doesn’t think it’s “healthy” for him to judge China’s governmental “process.” What is clear is that China isn’t healthy for artists, journalists, or dissidents. Reporters Without Borders lists China as 173rd in the world in terms of press freedom. Freedom in the World, the annual publication of the human-rights group Freedom House, had this to say about modern China in its 2012 report:
The Communist Party showed no signs of loosening its grip on power in 2011. Despite minor legal improvements regarding the death penalty and urban property confiscation, the government stalled or even reversed previous reforms related to the rule of law, while security forces resorted to extralegal forms of repression. Growing public frustration over corruption and injustice fueled tens of thousands of protests and several large outbursts of online criticism during the year. The party responded by committing more resources to internal security forces and intelligence agencies, engaging in the systematic enforced disappearance of dozens of human rights lawyers and bloggers, and enhancing controls over online social media.
Freedom House gives China a rating of 6.5 on its scale of civil and political liberties, with 1 being the best and 7 the worst. Its reports on Chinese-occupied Tibet are even grimmer. And could even worse abuses be taking place out of view, as was the case in Nazi Germany?
It’s not that Hollywood representatives are blind to the problems with giving in to Chinese censorship. But they show zero moral courage, and future generations may well fault them for it, just as today we are coming to condemn the way Hollywood tiptoed around the Nazi issues in the 1930s.
“The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognize China’s right to determine what content enters their country,” a statement from the Motion Picture Association of America to the Associated Press in April read. “Overall, our members make films for global audiences, and audiences’ tastes and demands evolve, and our members respond to those changes. But we also stand for maximum creative rights for artists.” Just don’t expect Hollywood to do much about it, short of an unlikely U.S.-led consumer boycott.
I worked in Hollywood once upon a time, so I understand the argument that business is business. While believing that the U.S. should press the Chinese regime on human rights. I also support trade with China — trade and cultural exchanges are helpful overall to the Chinese people. But Hollywood should spare us the cant about standing up for creative rights when too many people in Hollywood are focused on bending low to appease Chinese censors who control access to that country’s burgeoning box-office profits.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.