America is free, but China has begun censoring our films

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CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images

Throughout our ongoing struggles with China, one key battle appears to have been won by our adversary: the battle for arts and entertainment. Boasting a population of over 1.4 billion people, many of whom have the financial means to pay for and consume a wide variety of forms of entertainment, China’s market share for television, movies and art rivals that of the actual country that produces the films, the United States. With a powerful government that has no qualms about restricting media and the messages that its citizens consume, China has the ability to cut a movie’s box office earnings in half, obliterate television show viewership numbers, and completely deny entertainers and celebrities any form of notoriety within their country at the push of a button.

China’s impact on major American films is strong, but subtle — so subtle that it would go unnoticed by the public if it weren’t for eagle-eyed viewers. This influence is predicated on the omission or subtle alteration of information, rather than a clear, unequivocal message. One such instance occurred in mid-2021, when the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film “Top Gun” — titled “Top Gun: Maverick” — sparked outrage in the United States when it was revealed in the trailer that the bomber jacket Tom Cruise wore was the same jacket he wore in the 1986 film, but with the flags of Japan and Taiwan removed and replaced with random symbols. 

This would not be significant if the jacket were not otherwise identical to that in the first film, but the fact that these two nations’ flags were replaced is an unmistakable demonstration of Chinese coercion. This conclusion is especially convincing considering the conflicts that China has with Japan and Taiwan. 

In one of the most embarrassing instances of a celebrity kowtowing to Chinese pressure in recent memory, John Cena, a prominent American actor, while conducting an interview to promote the film “Fast and Furious 9,” exclaimed, “Taiwan is the first country to watch ‘Fast and Furious 9.’” The mere suggestion of Taiwan as an independent country evidently was too far beyond the pale for China to bear listening to, and it landed Cena between a rock and a hard place. To escape without costing him his career, he inevitably chose the path most often followed and embarrassingly portrayed himself as a sympathizer who cares more about the feelings of China’s communist leaders than he does for Taiwan, a U.S. ally. 

The “Fast and Furious” films frequently gross twice as much in China as they do in the United States, so the studio likely pressured Cena to make a humiliating apology to China. He apologized in Mandarin in a video and pleaded for forgiveness, stating, “I made a mistake; I’m so, so sorry for my mistake. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m very sorry. You have to understand, I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m sorry.” As a result, Cena became an internet joke; dubbed “John Xina,” his face was Photoshopped over an image of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.

If that isn’t enough, Lady Gaga was barred from performing in China because she visited with the Dalai Lama in 2016. Brad Pitt was banned for nearly 20 years because he starred in the film “Seven Years in Tibet,” and more recently, Keanu Reeves ran into trouble with Chinese censors for his presence at a Tibet benefit concert. 

These are only a few examples of the Chinese government’s censoring of big-name entertainers. The main problem is that China’s economic system serves a dual purpose: it employs a form of government-run capitalism that encourages industry growth through private investment, while at the same time a big brother government keeps a close eye on projects, waiting for them to succeed so that they can pounce and reap the benefits of a wider reach through new, innovative technology. This is true in both the entertainment and technology industries, with the Chinese government’s influence pervading practically every area of both. For example, the Chinese government forced WeChat, a popular social media platform in China with more than 1 billion users, to turn over users’ data so the government can better manage and track them. WeChat would not exist if it weren’t for private investment, and it wouldn’t be misusing its users’ data if it weren’t for the Chinese government. 

Truth ends where censorship begins. This is true in many facets of life, including in entertainment, social media, public spaces and sidewalks. For a government seeking to maintain control over its citizens’ daily lives, censorship is the most effective instrument for persuading them to believe what it wants, yet there will come a day when people care more about the ideals of freedom than the entertainment they consume. When that moment comes, a choice between censorship and freedom will materialize, and American movie studios will have to decide which of those two markets they prefer.

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”

Tags American film studios Censorship China John Cena Taiwan Tibet tom cruise

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