Film & TV

Hollywood’s Values Prove Flexible in China

People watch a movie in a cinema in Shanghai, China, July 20, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Action-movie star John Cena’s fulsome and abject apology for having offended China by referring in passing to Taiwan as a “country” while promoting his new movie F9 may have set a new low for cringing cravenness in Hollywood. As the celebrated wit David Burge said on Twitter, “I can’t blame John Cena, he can’t risk his career by being hauled up before the Beijing House Un-Chinese Activity Committee.”

These days Hollywood is so obsessed with growth in the Chinese marketplace that studios have routinely granted Chinese interests 75 percent of every box-office dollar its films generate there, edited storylines to please Chinese censors (bye-bye, Tibetan character in Doctor Strange), and, in Disney’s case, even badgered a U.S. magazine to scrub an eight-year-old reference made by its Oscar-winning Nomadland director Chloé Zhao to the lies and repression back in her native country. Movies such as 2012 and The Martian reek with flattery for the ingenuity and humanitarianism of red China. That Cena has spent more than ten years studying Mandarin Chinese is a clarifying detail: Hollywood types are willing to go to stupendous lengths to please the world’s soon-to-be-biggest movie market.

The movie business fancies itself a fierce opponent of racism, sexism, and excessive carbon emissions, even as it habitually prostrates itself before a regime that subjugates Muslims, perpetuates female infanticide on a breathtaking scale, and burns so much coal that its carbon emissions are more than double those of the U.S. Every Academy Awards ceremony bristles with disgust for the supposed pervasiveness of injustice in America, and at any given moment, Hollywood is threatening to boycott this or that state over some allegedly intolerable legislative act. Yet it’s hard to picture just what level of obsequiousness Hollywood might not consider in exchange for the right to continue to claim one out of every four dollars its movies generate in China. Last year, in the credits of the remake of Mulan, Disney thanked the “security agency” that persecutes Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.

Hollywood folk are far from alone in endangering their kneecaps in servility to Beijing; self-styled “King” LeBron James proved a vassal to Xi Jinping when he spouted CCP propaganda in rebuttal to the support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement expressed by the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Mark Zuckerberg, who is desperate for Facebook to be unblocked in China, has given unctuous speeches there in Mandarin in an effort to seem like a friend of the regime. Apple lobbied against a bill that would punish forced-labor factories in China by preventing their goods from being exported to the U.S.

Yet Hollywood’s taste for Chinese shoe leather sets the standard. When Chinese censors demanded Quentin Tarantino remove from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a (hilarious) scene that mocked Seventies Hong Kong action star Bruce Lee, Tarantino told China to stuff it. Tarantino’s willingness to defend his work was so wildly uncharacteristic of his industry that it made headlines, so don’t hold your breath expecting any of his peers to stick up for the principle of saving art from authoritarians. Hollywood, that great American institution, is well on its way to being a wholly owned subsidiary of China, Inc.

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