A full version of this essay appears in the April issue of the Journal of Democracy.
On May 27, Paramount Pictures Studios will release its 1980s sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, to U.S. theaters. But long before it even hit the screen, eagle-eyed viewers of the film’s trailer noticed a subtle change to Tom Cruise’s leather flight jacket from the 1986 original: The Taiwanese flag, which had appeared on a patch, had disappeared. In its place was a rectangle with the same blue and red colors but representing no country—presumably a concession to Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is merely a province of the People’s Republic of China. With support for the film’s production coming from China’s Tencent Pictures, the new Top Gun is a fitting metaphor of how the global entertainment industry is bending over backward to satisfy Beijing, no matter the cost to free speech or democratic values around the world.
China’s rise has sent shockwaves through every sector of the entertainment industry—from film to gaming and sports to social media. While 20 years ago, China had a film market worth only a few million dollars, in 2020, it surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest market for theatrically distributed films. As a result, observers are forecasting more and stronger Chinese government interference in cinematic content, with overseas film companies thirsty for access to the world’s biggest movie audience expected to comply. Using opaque practices, Beijing restricts entry into its media market, lays down strict rules governing content, and passes extraterritorial laws designed to control distribution even beyond China’s borders.
For years, Hollywood’s financial interests drove it to collaborate with Chinese regulators for access to the Chinese market. Desire to retain access to that enormous market has changed what Hollywood produces. Today, China’s approach relies less on the attractive power of Chinese media corporations as partners than on threats to cut off access to the Chinese market—as well as a growing global dependence on Chinese-developed platforms like TikTok. China’s “sharp power” methods rely on coercion, weaponizing technology and U.S. corporations’ dependence on the sizable Chinese market to extract concessions. Beijing’s minatory approach, moreover, has become increasingly pervasive as U.S. media conglomerates and brands run into Chinese government restrictions across multiple sectors, from theme parks and consumer products to films and streaming platforms. For example, in line with President Xi Jinping’s notion of Chinese “cultural soft power,” the 2016 Film Industry Promotion Law requires cast and crew members to exhibit “core socialist values,” and the 2021 Data Security Law formally mandates national security audits of data generated by Chinese firms anywhere in the world.
China’s threats work. Brands, corporations, and influencers in the United States limit what they say about topics that Beijing deems sensitive for fear of having content barred from China. These U.S. interests now think of China less as a place where they can look eagerly for Chinese partners in a mutual pursuit of riches, and more as a thorny thicket of “forbidden subjects” (including Falun Gong, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and their brutal suppression, Tibet, and the Uyghurs) that must be navigated with care and circumspection lest costly hits to revenues, profits, and share prices follow.
Disney has studiously ignored human rights issues in China. The company shot parts of its 2020 live-action version of Mulan in Xinjiang, with the support of, among other entities, the Turpan Municipality Public Security Bureau. The police agency—thanked in the movie’s credits—is closely associated with the PRC’s forced-labor interment camps for Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority. Nevertheless, Disney had little to say in response to protests other than “it’s common to acknowledge in a film’s credits the national and local governments that allowed you to film there,” and did not even offer this until Beijing—eager to quiet the controversy—had barred any mention of Mulan from Chinese media.
China’s content-control practices have also penetrated the gaming world. In October 2019, the gaming company Blizzard Entertainment—headquartered in California but then partly owned by Tencent—shut down speech in support of Hong Kong democracy protesters. When professional gamer Chung Ng Wai (who goes by Blitzchung) repeated in an interview a slogan used by Hong Kong demonstrators against the new security law that Beijing was then trying to impose on the city, the company threw Blitzchung out of its Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament, took back a year of his winnings, and suspended him for the following year. As a rationale, Blizzard cited an internal rule against any act that the company deemed would cause public disrepute, offend a portion of the public, or damage the company’s image. After a public outcry, Blizzard’s chief executive J. Allen Brack allowed that “our process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly” while reducing the punishment, a response that both failed to acknowledge what the company had done wrong and diminished its seriousness.
Chinese media companies have grown successful enough that they now have loyal foreign publics—with members ranging from celebrities who make money working with these companies to ordinary users—who will defend them. When President Donald Trump issued August 2020 executive orders banning TikTok from the United States unless its Chinese parent company sold it, TikTok influencers brushed aside the claim that the platform’s data-handling practices threatened U.S. national security. The video-sharing app has blocked posts concerning the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence, and other subjects that Beijing deems sensitive. Instead, these influencers advocated continued TikTok access for the sake of their individual commercial and entertainment needs.
Chinese regulators’ most potent tool is their ability to threaten a brand’s bottom line. Media companies that depend on access to the Chinese market will not be strong advocates for freedom of expression. Before criticizing China, brands think of how much it will cost to be barred from the giant Chinese market that Beijing so assiduously gatekeeps.
So what can be done to improve the way U.S. civil society responds to Chinese-government content control? One idea is to reestablish nonprofit content production and distribution operations in the United States, which could bring new voices not driven by social media likes and profitability. Valuable as this would be, it is unlikely, particularly given how polarized the U.S. political system has become.
A more promising direction would be to rebuild community organizations that operate independently of corporate interests. With independent civil society so much thinner on the ground than it used to be, there is less to counterweigh the influence of media conglomerates whose financial interests now shape so much of what is said and shown about China. Another idea is to increase education about contemporary China, particularly at the primary and secondary school levels. This would help to prepare young people to ask hard questions of the brands whose content they consume, questions about those brands’ financial investments and how those affect what they say or refrain from saying.
One approach that should not be taken is to reduce the Chinese market’s influence on Hollywood and U.S. media by a wholesale “decoupling.” Not only would this make the two countries’ relationship less stable at a time of high tensions, but it would also fail to address the pressure that other markets bring to bear. Netflix has removed content at the request of Germany, Singapore, and Vietnam. Rather than decoupling, the focus should be on mitigating the conditions in the United States—where many civil society groups depend on corporate donations, and companies are driven further into contentious markets in the pursuit of growth—that provide the environment for Chinese sharp power to thrive.