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Experts have propounded that China is on its way to bring back its box office revenues to pre-pandemic levels. A rising China also emerged as the biggest and fastest-growing movie market on the planet. This has prompted movie producers from the West to actively work to appease authorities as well as advertisers in China. One of the most seminal examples of Hollywood studios’ appeasement towards China in recent years has been the removal of Japanese and Taiwanese flag patches from Tom Cruise character’s jacket in the sequel to Top Gun. The movie also saw the involvement of Chinese holding Tencent as “an investor and co-marketer“.
However, appeasement to gain access to the Chinese market does not end here. Instead, commentators have observed appeasement of Chinese authorities to be part of a larger pattern that is observable in other industries as well and possesses the potential to impact the great power competition between the US and China. This pattern stands in stark contrast to the rivalry witnessed between the USSR and the US during the Cold War. In fact, movies such as Rocky, Rambo III, A Good Day to Die Hard, Telefon, and the Living Daylights had Soviet villains to highlight the clear-cut enmity between the US and the USSR.
Notably, there has been a resurgence of stereotypical villains from the former Soviet Union in movies such as Salt, The November Man, Child 44, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and with the character of Irina Spalko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. These portrayals have been a physical manifestation of the threat perceptions of that time. They were communicated through the portrayal of characters in movie roles traditionally considered and rendered “bad guys”. There has been a sharp contrast in the portrayal of Soviet villains as opposed to Chinese villains even as tensions flare between the US and China.
Chinese opposition to any negative depictions has been so fierce that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight was not even presented in China due to sanctions on Beijing. The reason was the presence of a shady Chinese businessman, “Lau”, as a fictional character in the movie. The 2012 movie Red Dawn memorably bartered its Chinese villains for North Koreans in order to gain access to multiplexes in China.
These developments also put a spotlight on the emerging culture of “self-censorship” in Hollywood in regards to China. Denizens have also focused on movies such as Abominable, which has been observed to bolster China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea. Additionally, Brad Pitt was only allowed to promote his movie Allied in China after a ban extending over 20 years for his movie Seven Years in Tibet, That experience has acted as a warning to tread carefully when selecting the cast, plot, dialogue, and settings for Hollywood films.
Traditionally, China has focused on hard power to achieve its objectives. However, Beijing has gained increasing cognizance of this limit, and has been investing in public diplomacy. The objective is to cultivate and wield soft power, rather than be exclusively dependent on hard power. One of the ways that Zhongnanhai has succeed in portraying the desired image is through a quota on Hollywood movies that can be released in Chinese theaters.
The system was earlier based on a bilateral pact pertaining to movie imports, which has now expired. Beijing has also utilized import permits, distribution dates, and digital keys as bargaining chips to censor movie studios. These instruments can result in unaffordable, expensive delays. All movies exported to China must also adhere to the constitution of the country, as well as uphold social morality. Strategic analysts are of the opinion that these factors could be exploited as diplomatic leverage against the new President in the White House, as they were against President Trump during the trade war.
Moreover, scholars have emphasized the importance of movies as one of the key drivers of the cultural industry of China. Movies have emerged as markers of excellence and a crucial indication of the soft power and influence of national culture. The movie industry has likewise been brandished by the Chinese Communist Party for purposes of making the Chinese audience cognizant of cultural infiltration, the instruction of fifth column agents as well as the nurturing of opposition inside China, wherein the stated catalyst was the US pivot to Asia.
Consequently, Chinese theaters have been directed to showcase propaganda movies twice a week, such as Battle of Xiangjiang River (2016) and The Sacrifice (2020). These propaganda movies are also to be provided preferential treatment, such as special scheduling slots aimed at increasing the “affection” of the youth as well as to honor the centenary of the CCP.
Nevertheless, one movie in recent years which featured a villain or antagonist who is a Chinese gangster was The Gentleman in 2019. The movie was inundated with accusations of usage of “casual racial slurs”. Furthermore, an artificially-created dearth of Chinese villains has provided space for the Chinese government to promote movies such as Wolf Warrior, designed to conjure a passion for patriotism and portrays Westerners as villains. Wolf Warrior 2 has also drawn parallels with old propaganda movies. This becomes extremely significant as mass perceptions of threat can drastically impact a nation’s foreign policy, including mobilization against the perceived threat.
Moreover, Chinese movies are making headway into foreign markets with one prominent example being The Wandering Earth. The movie showcases Chinese aspirations in a Sino-centric global order, through things such as international joint action. The movie has also taken geopolitical considerations into account. For instance, the ally of the Chinese protagonist in the movie is a Russian cosmonaut, which mirrors the contemporary convergences found between Russia and China.
Subsequently, a new strategy is emerging in Chinese cinema, wherein the Hollywood movie structure is combined with a foundation centered on a Chinese story and manufactured around global audience orientation. Furthermore, the advent of non-traditional security threats has also contributed to the rise of new villains such as eco-villains. Yet, Russian villains are in the future slated to be portrayed with total impunity as Russian interference in US elections is divulged. This factor is also coupled with the limited heft of the Russian market, which appears to be less alluring than the Chinese market to Hollywood denizens. At the same time, Chinese movies seem to be challenging Hollywood dominance, just as China is challenging the US across the globe.
The author thanks Dr. Monish Tourangbam M.Phil., Ph.D., Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) in the Department of Geopolitics & International Relations, for contributing to the piece.
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