China goes to Hollywood
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“One tiger is no match for a pack of wolves,” one Chinese businessman recently proclaimed in the face of American competition.  

His name is Wang Jianlin, the founder and chairman of Dalian Wanda — China’s largest commercial property company and movie theater operator. Wang’s rhetoric has ratcheted up in recent months, as Disney prepares to unveil its first theme park in China. The American company’s new venture — to be opened in Shanghai on June 16th — is being met with deep resentment from Wanda’s chairman, who claimed that Disney “shouldn’t have entered China.” Even between two global competitors, the heated rhetoric is unusual.

But Dalian Wanda is no ordinary company: It is closely aligned with the Chinese government’s ruling Communist Party. After serving in the People’s Liberation Army for almost two decades, Wang was appointed Office Director of a local government by the Communist Party and went on to serve as a deputy to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party. He has twice been named China’s “Economic Person of the Year” by CCTV, the country’s state-run television network. 

It’s no surprise, then, that relatives of two members of China’s Politburo — the Communist Party’s principal policymaking committee—provided seed money to the firm. Other early investors included a business partner of the daughter of Wen Jiabao, the former Chinese prime minister, and the elder sister of President Xi Jinping.

So why should Wang’s political ties matter to Americans? 

To answer that question, it’s important to understand Chinese foreign policy. For at least a decade now, the Communist Party has included the projection of “soft power” in its policy platform, vowing to expand its global influence beyond sheer militarization. In 2007, then-President Hu Jintao pledged to “enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country to better guarantee the people’s basic cultural rights and interest.” Xi echoed that sentiment in 2014, vowing to “strengthen China’s soft power” and “build its capacity in international communication.” 

He added: “Mass media, groups, and individuals should play their roles in displaying [Chinese] charm to the world.” 

That’s where Wang Jianlin and Dalian Wanda come into play. In 2012, the company bought AMC Entertainment for about $2.6 billion. AMC in turn agreed to purchase Carmike Cinemas in March of this year for roughly $737 million, which would form the largest movie theater chain in the country with more than 600 cinemas (the deal is expected to close in late 2016). Wanda also purchased Legendary Entertainment—the film studio behind The Dark Knight Trilogy—for about $3.5 billion and is reportedly interested in acquiring at least a portion of Lionsgate, the $4.7 billion producer of The Hunger Games

All of this matters because the Communist Party is notorious for the censorship of cinema. China already only allows 34 non-Chinese films into its market every year—all of which are heavily edited. For example, the producers of Iron Man 3 inserted a scene of doctors discussing surgery on the superhero before the movie’s release in China. All of the doctors were played by Chinese movie stars.

Censorship plays out in the production stage as well. The 2012 remake of Red Dawn originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town; but moviemakers changed the invaders into North Koreans. “[Chinese diplomats] were not interested in their country being perceived as a violent military threat,” film producer Peter Shiao explained. Chinese censors have also balked at China’s portrayal as a “developing country” in action flicks.

Wanda’s takeover of U.S. cinema grants Wang Jianlin — a former Communist deputy — control of both production and distribution channels. This means he could not only censor a movie in its development stage, but also refrain from showing a finished product in his theaters just because the Communist Party objects. The proposed merger of AMC and Carmike would extend the unilateral power to promote pro-China — or anti-America — propaganda to more than 600 theaters nationwide. 

As film producer Rob Cain puts it, “China is going to be…the arbiter of what can get made and will get made.” And Dalian Wanda is the Communist Party’s starring actor. 

For America’s moviegoers, that’s a scary proposition. For U.S. legislators, it’s a call to action.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.