China continues to exert damaging influence on Hollywood, report finds

A new report has found that the Chinese government’s influence on Hollywood is posing a serious threat to free expression.

The 94-page study, from literary and human rights group Pen America, details the many ways that studios and film-makers continue to change “cast, plot, dialogue and settings” in an “effort to avoid antagonising Chinese officials” in films including Iron Man 3, World War Z and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick.

“The Chinese Communist party is increasingly shaping what global audiences see,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at Pen America, also a lead author of the report. “While we are all well aware of the strict controls that China’s government maintains over dissent, independent thought, and creativity within its own borders, the long arm of Chinese censorship – powered by vast economic incentives – has also reached deep into Hollywood, shaping perceptions, inculcating sensitivities, and reshaping the bounds of what can be shown, said, and told.”

Through dozens of interviews and case studies, the authors explain the many changes that have been forced upon films before they’re granted a release into a lucrative market. LGBT content was removed from Bohemian Rhapsody, Star Trek: Beyond, Alien: Covenant and Cloud Atlas, scenes where Chinese people were killed were taken out of Skyfall and Mission: Impossible III and a major character was changed from Tibetan to Celtic in Doctor Strange, a decision made by the screenwriter to avoid the risk of “alienating one billion people”.

In the report, Stanley Rosen, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California, says that the government “will focus on everything that has a China component in it. Don’t think that if you’re doing something that’s not intended for China, that’s an indie film meant for a small market, that China won’t notice and that it won’t hurt your blockbuster film. It will.”

The report recommends that “Hollywood studios commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by government regulators for their films”.

In 2019, American films made over $2.6bn in China with Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far from Home and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw making more money there than in the US.

The release of the report comes after the US government has openly criticised Hollywood for kowtowing to Chinese intervention, also blaming the studios for pre-emptively censoring or canning potentially difficult projects.

“Many more scripts never see the light of day because writers and producers know not to test the limits,” attorney general William Barr said in July. “Chinese government censors don’t need to say a word because Hollywood is doing their work for them. This is a massive propaganda coup for the Chinese Communist party.”

In June, Richard Gere appeared before the US senate to warn about the dangers of letting China control content. “The combination of Chinese censorship, coupled with American film studios’ desire to access China’s market, can lead to self-censorship and overlooking social issues that great American films once addressed,” he said.

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