Our Chinese Friends?

Last year, China’s fiercely nationalistic “Global Times” declared that the People’s Republic was “not afraid to fight a war” with the United States over a provocation by US Navy ships in the South China Sea. Most commentators dismissed the declaration as empty rhetoric, but the incident underscored a familiar truth : China and the United States are not friends.

You would never know this, however, if you went to the movies. Increasingly, Chinese nationals – and even the Chinese government itself! – are depicted on the silver screen as American allies and friends, co-operative partners working with Western heroes towards a greater good. Outright negative depictions of China are vanishingly rare in major Hollywood films, even as negative depictions of Arabs, Russians, Latinos and Asian-Americans remain prevalent.

If we presume that art imitates life – and if American cinema has never hesitated to vilify America’s enemies in the past – then what explains this gap between fiction and reality? To answer this, we first need a bit of background on China’s real relationship with the United States, and on Hollywood’s long, racist history of depicting Chinese onscreen.

Cool War
China and the US are not friends; but they’re not exactly enemies, either. Noah Feldman refers to their complicated relationship – one part economic interdependence and co-operation, one part barely concealed hostility and mistrust – as a “cool war,” one notch below the deadlock of a Cold War. Whether China’s rise to the global stage can be peaceful or not is one of the major questions of our time.

The many points of contention between China and the US can make your head spin – Chinese hackers routinely steal secrets from American corporations and government agencies; China threatens America’s allies in Asia by aggressively asserting claims on other countries’ territory in the South and East China Seas; China has unseated the United States as the major trading partner in Africa, and is threatening American interests in countries as diverse as Israel, Djibouti and Pakistan; China feels threatened and constrained by the US military’s “pivot to Asia”; and China is developing institutions which undermine American control over international finance.

This stands beside a litany of human rights concerns, which the US largely ignores. Although the US and China are not actually at war, Hollywood has never hesitated to depict America’s rivals negatively in the past. When Japanese car companies were ascendant and threatening the American auto industry in the 80’s, for example, negative depictions of Japanese in movies like “Rising Sun” proliferated.

“Kill the white man and take his women!”
To be clear, Hollywood does not have a history of positive depictions of Chinese people. On the contrary, Chinese people have been wildly vilified in American cinema. For years, America’s most recognizable Chinese character was “the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu,” an evil, sadistic and perverted “Chinese Satan” who appeared in a series of popular horror films. Always portrayed by white actors like Boris Karloff in ‘yellowface’ makeup, Fu Manchu conspired to kill white men and rape white women – as succinctly summarized in a line from ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ (1932): “Conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!”

It’s that bad…

Fu Manchu mirrored racist American fears of a ‘yellow peril,’ the conspiracy theory that Chinese immigrants wanted to steal American jobs and corrupt American society. Anti-Asian political slogans like “Keep America white!” were employed by nativist demagogues who opposed Chinese immigration, until that immigration was banned outright for decades. Chinese already living in the US were the victims of discrimination and mob violence. The Fu Manchu character re-enforced these racist fantasies. Not surprisingly, the fictional Fu Manchu was despised in China; the Chinese government actually made multiple attempts to prevent Fu Manchu movies from being produced, only succeeding once when the American government needed China’s support during the Second World War.

Eventually, Fu Manchu would be succeeded in the American imagination by “the wise detective,” Charlie Chan. Similarly always portrayed by white actors, Charlie Chan embodied white America’s fantasy of “the model minority” – a non-threatening, servile ethnic character who did not challenge the white-dominated order. Spouting faux-Confucian aphorisms in broken English, affable but sexless and submissive, Charlie Chan created an image of Chinese as weak and unassertive. Although some revisionist scholars, like Yunte Huang, have argued that Chan was actually a relatively positive depiction of Chinese (and that he was beloved in China), this is a minority opinion. Frank Chin summarized how many Asian-Americans feel about Chan in the title of his essay, “Charlie Chan is Dead.”

Yellowface, just no
People fooled = 0

Then, Enter the Dragon – Bruce Lee revolutionized depictions of Chinese in Hollywood. The ultra-cool, confident and masculine Lee was adored not only by Asian Americans, but by many African Americans and other minorities as well. For many, Lee was the first non-white hero they had ever seen on film. Lee, of course, would generate other stereotypes – Asians as stoic martial artists – but it is hard to argue his influence wasn’t positive, especially in eliminating Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan’s lingering influence.

Negative depictions of Asians as geeks and losers persist in popular American cinema. But just as often, Asian parts are completely re-written for white stars – Emma Stone as a Chinese-Hawaiian in “Aloha,” the entire cast of “21,” Scarlett Johansson in the lead of Japanese “Ghost in the Shell,” Ewan MacGregor and Naomi Watts as Filipinos in “The Impossible,” and the list goes on and on and on.

oh god, not Hepburn too...
oh god, not Hepburn too…

So why are Chinese nationals – and the Chinese government – an exception?

Sutton’s Law

The reason Hollywood is catering to China is because – to lift a line from bank robber Willie Sutton (when he was asked why he robbed banks) –  “that’s where the money is.”

The Chinese box office is, simply put, gigantic. It’s the second largest in the world and growing, predicted to be larger than the American one in as little as three years. It shattered records in 2015 by raking in more than $5 billion by the end of September – approximately $1.75 billion of those profits came from foreign (read: Hollywood) films. As many as 30 screens a day are being built to accommodate the ever-growing Chinese middle class’ thirst for cinema.

Indeed, the incredible returns from the Chinese film market have led many observers to believe it is radically transforming Hollywood’s business model, as major studio films are repeatedly saved from financial ruin by success in China. Dramas and comedies do not travel well – cultural codes and subtleties are often lost in translation – but the Chinese film industry currently has nothing to match Hollywood’s brand of big budget, special-effects-driven blockbuster.

The financial success of Western films in the Middle Kingdom has been achieved despite numerous obstacles to releasing a Western film in China. The Chinese government employs various tactics to hurt the profits of Hollywood movies, apparently under the belief that Chinese films will perform better if Western films do less well. These tactics include limiting the number of foreign films which are permitted to be shown each year to 34, and occasionally banning Western films from being shown at all during the prime summer movie-going months. Additionally, the government sometimes arranges for similar films to compete with one another – “the Amazing Spider-Man” and “the Dark Knight Rises” were released in China on the same weekend, for instance, to deliberately hurt the success of both films.

Finally, state censors place stringent demands on foreign films, filtering out any potentially political or subversive content. A lack of a film rating system means films also need to be appropriate for (and appeal to) all ages, leading to such bizarre edits as Kate Winslet’s breasts being cropped out of her nude scene in the 3D re-release of “Titanic.” This move prompted a popular satirical article (briefly mistaken as genuine by Western press) that claimed officials had removed the breasts out of fears “that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch, and thus interrupt other people’s viewing.” (“I’ve been waiting almost 15 years, and not for the 3D icebergs,” quipped one Chinese blogger.)

But releasing a Hollywood film in China is worthwhile nevertheless. Exhibit A – the strange case of “Terminator: Genisys” and the disappearing ticket stubs. Hollywood Reporter revealed that the Chinese government committed fraud to deliberately undercut “Terminator’s” performance, diverting profits from the sci-fi movie to a Chinese film. Paramount Studios, which produced Terminator, was supposed to have lost as much as $11 million because of this fraud, but – amazingly – it didn’t matter. Terminator 5 grossed more than $112 million in China, more than a quarter of its worldwide profits.

None of this has been lost on Hollywood’s famously shrewd executives, who have been trying for the past five years to get in on the action. Western studios are increasingly orienting themselves around what will play in China – both with regards to the Chinese public and Chinese censors.

Our Chinese Partners
One major technique Hollywood studios have employed to guarantee their films will be released in China is to co-produce films with Chinese companies. This means that their films are technically “Chinese” because a Chinese company is a partner on the film. “Iron Man 3” was the first major American film to be co-produced with Chinese partners.

On the surface of things, “Iron Man 3” went out of its way to appeal to Chinese audiences. Multiple Chinese actors were cast in small but crucial roles; the producers added a scene of Iron Man flying through Tienanmen Square; and lead actor Robert Downey Jr. was flown in to China on a publicity tour, where he professed his love of Chinese culture.

But while “Iron Man 3” was a financial success, it flopped in its attempts at diplomacy. The small but ‘crucial’ Chinese roles were almost completely edited out of the American version of the film – the plot points they’d been associated with were virtually unrelated to the film’s actual story. Chinese audiences who saw both the Chinese and American edits were insulted at this blatant and clearly insincere attempt to pander to them.

But Hollywood’s next attempt to win over China would be far more successful. Michael Bay’s critically reviled “Transformers” series went to China – “Transformers 4: Age of Extinction” was partially set in China and featured Chinese stars in important supporting roles (including Li Binbing as a tough-as-nails martial artist/executive who provides critical aid to the American heroes.) A reality TV show was hosted in China to select young Chinese for additional roles, and the film was heavily promoted in China. Unlike “Iron Man 3,” “Transformers 4” hit its mark and grossed more than $300 million in China, at the time the highest grossing film in China ever.

But “Transformers 4” set two deeply troubling precedent. In a bid to circumvent China’s famously particular censors, its plot dodged anything that could remotely be considered political. Fair enough. But it went a step further – “Transformers 4” presents the Chinese government in a highly positive light. Indeed, the Chinese government saves the day.

“We have to call the central government!”
Most of the Chinese characters in “Transformers 4” speak in Mandarin to each other, with English subtitles. But there is one conspicuous exception. At one point, when Hong Kong is being attacked by villainous robotic villains, a Hong Kong soldier turns to his comrade and yells, “we have to call the central government!” – in English.

It’s not completely clear if the soldier who speaks the line is American (what is he doing there if so?), but the inclusion of the line is clearly more than an afterthought. Why does this matter? Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory in China, and the city’s relationship with the central government is very tense (see Umbrella Movement), as underscored by the pro-democracy and anti-central government protests that periodically erupt. Yet in the film, Hong Kong is dependent on and subservient to China. And they declare it in English, to make extra-certain American audiences get the message. A viewer unfamiliar with Chinese politics wouldn’t notice a thing – that’s almost the point – but the political statement is unmistakable.

During the film. the Chinese government races to the rescue, sending its military to assist the American heroes in their fight against the evil robots. Although the blockbuster’s main heroes are patriotic Americans, American society is (in contrast to China) portrayed negatively – the CIA and a sinister American corporation are the film’s main antagonists. “Transformers 4” is practically propaganda, with its positive portrayal of the Chinese government, its careful altering of reality in depicting mainland China and Hong Kong’s relationship, and its subtle demonisation of America.

What “Transformers 4” appears to have been trying to do was placate Chinese censors by including pro-China content. There is nothing wrong with positive portrayals of Chinese people – given Hollywood’s history, this is actually laudable – but “Transformers 4” re-writes reality to conform to the Chinese government’s official narrative of the world.

It is just one of many films that have censored themselves in order to get played in China, essentially allowing China to extend its censorship of political content to Hollywood. Those interested in making money in China have no choice but to remove anything the Chinese government might deem offensive – a trend with deeply troubling implications for freedom of speech in the West.

China Goes Global
Films with content that is arguably anti-Chinese government are simply denied access to the Chinese box office. A remake of 1984’s “Red Dawn,” which had China invading the US instead of Russia, had to quickly re-write its premise and digitally alter flags so that the invaders were North Korean, not Chinese, after backlash from China. “World War Z” underwent re-writes as well to erase allusions to a disease that originated in China; the film was still denied access to the Chinese market.

Most recently and most prominently, the writer of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” admitted in an interview that a Tibetan wise man that mentors the protagonist in the comics was re-written as white in order to avoid any mention of Tibet, which China occupies (and which would cause the film to be banned in China.) In so doing, Marvel erases Tibet and China’s crimes there from existence – in the same way that “Transformers 4” erases Hong Kong’s aspirations for independence and democracy. All of this is explicitly done to conform to the Chinese government’s censorship – implicitly extending that censorship from Beijing to Los Angeles, and, consequently, the entire world!

Many films include subtle positive allusions to China and the Chinese government in what appear to be attempts to appeal to China. In “Looper,” Joseph-Gordon Levitt leaves a decaying America to pursue a future in China. In “2012,” the Chinese government builds modern-day Noah’s Arks which save humanity. In “Gravity,” an astronaut must get to a Chinese space station to survive when she is marooned in space. In “the Martian,” the Chinese government heroically and selflessly provides its secret space ships to help save Matt Damon from Mars. Later in the film, Chinese crowds cheer alongside Americans when Damon is saved. China and America, “the Martian” conveys, are friends.

This theme of American and Chinese co-operation extends to Chinese produced films like “Dragon Blade” and “the Great Wall.” In “Dragon Blade,” like in “Transformers 4,” a corrupt Western government (the Roman Empire) goes to war with China on the ancient Silk Road; American heroes (John Cusack and Adrien Brody) defect and fight alongside Chinese lead Jackie Chan. In “the Great Wall,” Western dragon-slayer Matt Damon is called in to help the Chinese fight monsters. It is less surprising to see Chinese films with pro-China narratives, but somewhat surprising that Western stars are so entirely willing to participate in promoting these narratives.

There is nothing wrong with Americans and Chinese co-operating, but it’s important to note that this too is Chinese state propaganda – China heavily promotes the narrative of its expansion onto the global stage as part of a “peaceful rise,” in which America need not fear that China will deliberately undermine it. China is just seeking its fair share of global commerce, the Chinese state claims. In their bid to make money in China, American filmmakers subtly and implicitly endorse this narrative.

The endorsement of China needs to be explicitly clear, because even the slightest criticism of China or the Chinese can lead to censorship. The “Karate Kid” remake, starring Jackie Chan and Jayden Smith, is an unambiguously glowing portrayal of Chinese culture, history and martial arts. But it was almost banned from China because the bullies who pick on young Jayden Smith in the film are Chinese. The film needed to be edited to remove all aggression by Chinese characters, thus producing a stunted and bizarre story in which Smith repeatedly attacks Chinese children unprovoked (instead of in self-defence.)

Is This The Future of Hollywood?
Film is the world’s most effective form of propaganda, because when political content is included in it, audiences don’t realise that they are being fed information about the real world. We absorb beliefs about people and places far less critically than we might from a book, a newspaper article, or a politician. As a result, Hollywood’s censorship of its own films to pass the censorship of the Chinese government means that the entire world is being exposed to films with pro-China narratives.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, we should absolutely expect to see more (rather than less) pandering to the Chinese government in Hollywood films. The making of films subversive to the Chinese government – such as a film about the Tienanmen Square massacre, or China’s occupations of Tibet and Xinjiang – will never see the light of day in Hollywood. Changing the content of American films to pass Chinese censors has a simple but powerful economic logic to it – but it is toxic for artistic freedom and freedom of speech in the West.

As mentioned, it is entirely positive to see Chinese people displayed with humanity and respect. It’s a welcome counterbalance to Hollywood’s history of degrading and unflattering depictions of Chinese. But what is happening is not merely positive depictions of Chinese people, but of the Chinese government and of Chinese government policies – and that is very dangerous. Increasingly, studios will refuse to produce any films critical of China. At this rate, if not already, Chinese censorship will very much become a Western import.

-The Sixth Napoleon