When histories of China’s rise are written several generations down the road, the role of Beijing’s propaganda campaigns will be a central part of the story. Perhaps never before has a major power worked so effectively to prevent negative images of itself from being spread abroad. Central to China’s strategy is to co-opt the popular culture that plays an outsized role in forming the impressions of non-specialists.
Almost nowhere in our vast ocean of popular culture can criticism of China be found. Despite an increasingly authoritarian regime that operates its own form of gulag for political prisoners and ethnic Uighur Muslims, despite a history in which one man, Mao Zedong, caused the deaths of 50 million of his fellow Chinese, despite the commitment of current leader Xi Jinping to rampant espionage against American citizens and the kidnapping of critics from foreign countries, Hollywood films China through a lens of sweetness and light.
Even today, films and novels about evil Nazis, menacing Soviets, and perfidious Japanese are staples of popular culture. Think of The Man in the High Tower or Red Sparrow, neither of which plumb particularly deeply into the psyche of totalitarianism or the dark world of espionage. Yet in the 75 years since Adolf Hitler took the coward’s way out in his dank Berlin bunker, Nazis have never left our consciousness. And while sympathy for elements of the Soviet Union always tinged the perception of America’s elite, the Commies continue to receive a well-deserved bashing.
Beijing, however, has used its growing economic power to shape global public opinion through sophisticated propaganda operations and the blunt use of financial clout. Much of the work of scrubbing anti-Chinese images is done through the coordinating activities of the United Front Work Department. The department, which originated in the early 1940s and was revived in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping, reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is charged with building support for the CCP and by extension for China as a whole. Overseas Chinese communities, foreign journalists, and Chinese students and professors studying overseas are all targets of the United Front. It attempts to influence or even coerce them into promoting positive images of China and the Party, or to self-censor criticism. The role of state-funded Confucius Institutes in blocking criticism of China on U.S. and foreign university campuses is finally getting attention from Congress and security agencies.
With its newfound clout over foreign businesses eager to gain access to Chinese markets, Beijing has also forced corporate capitulation to preferred policies. Almost all major international airlines bowed to Beijing’s demands that Taiwan not be listed as an independent country on their booking sites. Similarly, companies such as Marriott or Daimler-Benz that fall afoul of Beijing’s sensitivities, such as by quoting the Dalai Lama or liking a post by a Tibetan group, are forced to grovel to keep their businesses open in China, asking forgiveness for undermining the country’s sovereignty and for insulting the Chinese people. All this, of course, serves Beijing’s political goals of isolating Taiwan and turning attention away from the Chinese police state being established in Tibet.
Beijing’s pressure on Hollywood serves the same purpose, and is perhaps even more vital to its foreign-policy successes. From forming production and distribution partnerships with American entertainment companies to buying stakes in U.S. studios, Chinese influence in Hollywood has grown dramatically over the past two decades.
The impact has been clear. Not only has the massive growth of the Chinese domestic box office spurred American movie producers away from any negative images of China, explicit pressure has been put on U.S. companies to conform to Chinese demands. A famous incident was the post-production digital alteration of Chinese soldiers into North Koreans in the 2011 remake of Red Dawn. Portrayals of wise Chinese saving the world, as in Arrival, or of selfless Chinese with hearts of gold in B-movies like The Meg (coproduced with a Chinese company) are just an indication of how much Hollywood has internalized the pro-China attitude demanded by Beijing and its influence organs. It is, in no uncertain terms, self-censorship.
There are few departures from the “never criticize China” rule adopted by American popular-culture outlets. One significant example is the Amazon Prime Los Angeles–based crime drama Bosch, starring Titus Welliver and based on the novels by Michael Connelly. Bosch included a major China subplot in its fourth season last year, and nods to China in the fifth season. Suffused with a Raymond Chandler–like sensibility, Bosch is television noir, stripping away the pieties of a superficial society that covers up its dark underbelly by common consent so as not to offend the sensibilities of those refined enough to escape its sordid reality.
Season four of Bosch saw the irruption of Chinese gambling and crime syndicates into L.A. and showcased their ruthlessness. Intertwined with the portrayal of Chinese Mafiosi were references to Hong Kong, including one minor character’s warning against visiting Hong Kong, noting that he can’t leave (presumably owing to Chinese pressure) and that “it’s not safe here.” Some of the Chinese bad guys are children of leading government officials, underscoring for viewers the corruption and nepotism that lie at the heart of CCP rule. In the current season, China is not mentioned explicitly, but the main villains import boxes of Chinese drugs, presumably fentanyl, a reminder of China’s role in exporting the deadly drug to America, which it has repeatedly promised, but failed, to curtail.
No other recent show or movie has shown China not merely in an unflattering light but as positively menacing. From gambling to drugs to intimidation to murder, Bosch details the nexus of Chinese criminals and the ruling class on the small screen. In other words, China finally got the same treatment from Hollywood as the U.S. government and its officials have for years. And while neither the Chinese criminals nor the Party were portrayed as Soviets or Nazis, no one watching could help but wonder just how faithfully the show represented the combination of power and lawlessness in China.
The only other notable example of Hollywood pulling back China’s propaganda curtain in recent years was a minor subplot in the now-ended USA Network series Royal Pains, in whose seventh season a potential successor to the Dalai Lama was brought to the doctor protagonist for a secret medical procedure, during which the Chinese repression of Tibet was mentioned several times.
Why, then, would Bosch and Amazon Prime risk the ire of China’s influence campaign? The answer may well be simple economics. Amazon has only about 1 percent share of China’s e-commerce market and has repeatedly failed to increase its stake. Nor has it made any headway in streaming services in China. Thus, the company has little to lose. Given previous behavior by Beijing, it is almost certain that were Amazon a major player inside China, it would have faced enormous regulatory pressure to drop any anti-China plotlines. Ironically, Amazon’s economic failure in China may have given Bosch’s producers the artistic freedom necessary to introduce a wholly believable plot, and one that provides some of the reality so often missing from portrayals of China.
Amazon’s “failure” offers a lesson that goes beyond commerce to international politics. Indeed, the future may possibly hold more risk for China’s carefully curated image. As Hollywood’s profits in China fall, as Chinese investment in movie distributors and Hollywood sputters, and as domestic Chinese producers step in to replace Western entertainment offerings with their own, Beijing’s leverage over American firms will weaken, and the potential cost to American studios of filming more-balanced treatments of China, or of tackling major topics such as espionage, forced abortions, the concentration of Uighurs, and the like will drop. That may allow the world to see China in a different light, one that more accurately reflects the reality of its oppressive system and its global effects.