How China Is Taking Control of Hollywood


Heritage Explains

How China Is Taking Control of Hollywood

The intersection of the free market and Chinese censorship in Hollywood, and what that means for our culture.

This week, on the "Heritage Explains" podcast, we discuss the intersection of the free market and Chinese censorship in Hollywood, and what that means for our culture.

TIM DOESCHER: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher, and this is Heritage Explains.


DOESCHER: Is there anything more American than grabbing a date, grabbing some candy and popcorn, and going to the movies? "Here's looking at you kid," "life is like a box of chocolates," and how about some good old-fashioned Chinese censorship? Wait what?


FOX NEWS REPORTER: It is a question you might never have considered, is China taking over Hollywood? The Chinese are financing some of your favorite films, buying theater chains, it is a growing trend. Major Chinese production companies teaming up with Tinseltown, which is leading to concerns over pro-China propaganda making it's way into major American blockbusters.


NBC TODAY SHOW HOST: Here's an interesting fact. If you go to a movie theater right now, it's a pretty decent chance you're going to be seeing a Hollywood movie with a budget partly from China. That is actually true of two of the top three movies out right now, and it's just one sign of a global power shift in entertainment that's already changing the movies you see.


STEPHEN COLBERT: The Chinese government only allows a small number of foreign movies into China each year, and after America, China is the number two biggest movie-going country in the world. So, it's only natural for American movie makers to try to please the cultural gate-keepers of the Chinese government. They've been doing it for years. In the disaster movie, "2012," humanity is saved because the Chinese government had the foresight to build life-saving arcs. In "Gravity," Sandra Bullock survives by getting herself to the Chinese Space Station. That movie did so well in China, she went back and re-shot "The Blindside" with an underprivileged table tennis player.


DOESCHER: China is on track to overtake the U.S. as the largest consumer of movies in the world. They love Hollywood, but do they love the same Hollywood we do? As most know, China is communist, and while they are somewhat economically open, there is still significant control over the content Chinese people are exposed to. It goes something like this, in order for the U.S. film to crack the Chinese market, certain themes cannot be portrayed, certain products must be taken out, and certain speech must be limited. Seems easy right? Not so much.


DOESCHER: Hollywood is relying more and more on the Chinese markets to make profits on movies. That means our films are being written with China in mind.


MIKE GONZALEZ: American audiences are being submitted to censorship, not our own censorship, but a foreign power's censorship, and a Communist Party censorship. But, we get shown a very benign view of China, in which China is a normal country, no different from Paris, or Britain, or Germany. That is not the case obviously. If you speak against the government in Germany, nothing happens to you. If you speak against the government in China, they'll throw you in jail.


DOESCHER: Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy here at The Heritage Foundation. He's not only done extensive research on China's attempt to infiltrate American culture, but he's actually experienced it first-hand. He explains.


GONZALEZ: I have worked there as a journalist. I have traveled in China proper, as a journalist. I've had many experiences with them. I've had my Visa canceled in Shanghai, because they didn't like what I was doing. That was back in the 90s. Then, in 2004, I think it was 2003 ... I think it was 2004, when I was editor of the editorial page of The Asian Wall Street Journal, I had officials from the Chinese government come and visit me, and told me that I had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.


GONZALEZ: First, they presented me with a gift, which is what they do, and then they said the reason they were there was to tell me that I had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. That's a stock phrase that they use. They use that with journalists, and we all have to resist the urge of saying, "Oh my god, 1.3 billion people are all crying at the same time." It was just to tell me that I ... So I talked to my offices in New York, and we didn't make a big deal out of it. I didn't go to the Consulate. The Consulate General, The American Consulate General, wanted to make it a big deal, but my office in New York said, "Nah, this is what happens with journalists. We're used to this. We get pressure. So, just write a really tough editorial against China." Which is what I did, I wrote a really tough ... which is not hard to do, because there are so many things that they do wrong, that I just showed them by writing a tough editorial, that I was not going to be intimidated.


DOESCHER: I want to shift now to Hollywood.




DOESCHER: There was a recent Wall Street Journal article that talked about the growth of the Chinese movie industry, which is quickly becoming the ... Well, it's the second largest, quickly becoming the largest in the world. It quoted, they said, "It is yet another example of the frustrating reality in Hollywood. Chinese is too big to ignore, but doing business there means subjecting any deal to the whim of an increasingly unpredictable government."


GONZALEZ: Yeah, so China is ... has been catching up, as you rightly said as the number two box office, in terms of revenue after the United States. It will catch up soon. Let's not forget that China has 1.3 billion people, the United States has less than a third of that.


DOESCHER: Of course.


GONZALEZ: 330 million people. But, the Chinese box office revenue now, it's about 8.6 billion dollars. The American box office revenue is just over 11 billion dollars. So, they're about 2 billion plus ... We're 2 billion plus ahead, but they'll catch up to that. So, it's a significant market, and that is great. What is worrisome about that is, that in order to play in that market, Hollywood studios have to do two things.


GONZALEZ: First they have ... There's a quota system. China only lets in ... because China's not a fair trader. You know, Donald Trump, although we don't like tariffs, but Donald Trump is not entirely wrong about that. China's not a fair trader at all. On that score, President Trump is not wrong. On top of that, if you want to play in china ... if you're lucky enough for your movies to have been chosen, then you have to submit your script beforehand to Chinese censors. Chinese censors can and will and have done so, change your script, change your movie in order to portray China as not the dictatorship that it is, but as a benevolent country no different from the UK or France.


DOESCHER: So, let me just stop you there. Just from the beginning, how does the review process work?


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GONZALEZ: Well, a Hollywood studio will have a script. They will send it to the Chinese censor, and say, "This is a movie we might like to see play in China at some point." The Chinese censor will go through it, and then say that there is a Tibetan character. This happened in a movie, I believe it was "Red Dawn," in which there was a ... No, it wasn't "Red Dawn," sorry. It was "Doctor Strange." "Doctor Strange" had a Tibetan character, and the studio that was making "Doctor Strange" changed it to a Celtic character, in order not to acknowledge that such a thing as a Tibetan exists, that there is such an identity and a group of people called Tibetans.


DOESCHER: So, what is China looking for when they're reviewing films?


GONZALEZ: Well, you know China has very famously, the three Ts. That is Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. Tiananmen is a proxy for human rights. Very famously China crushed a student-led protest in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, killing thousands of people of peaceful demonstrators. Trampled or shot or run over by tanks. So, China does not want anything to do with the June 4th, 1989 Tiananmen event, or anything to do with any criticism of human rights which are massive.


GONZALEZ: China does not want any mention of the fact that Taiwan is a separate island, even though it technically is still a part of China, but they're a Democratic capitalism free, none of which China is.


GONZALEZ: Then, they also don't want any discussion of Tibet, which is a region which was invaded in the 50s, where the language and the customs and the religion as a place, are suppressed.


DOESCHER: Has it always been this strict, or is it increasing more over time?


GONZALEZ: Well, it's had its ups and downs obviously under Mao Zedong, which was the man who imposed Marxism and Communism in China in 1949. It was truly horrible. Then there was an opening in '79 after Mao's death, and it lasted until '89, lasted about ten years, until the Tiananmen massacre. Then again, there was a tightening of the screws, and then back in the 1990s there was a bit of an opening again, economic opening. The worrying part is that Xi Jinping, the new Chinese leader, earlier this year changed the Constitution so that he does not have to rotate. Every leader pretty much since Deng Xiaoping died in 1996, I believe it was, that China has had rotating leaders. Hu Jintao, Jian Zemin, but now Xi Jinping looks like he wants to revive some aspects of Maoism.


DOESCHER: So, we're concerned that this is only going to ... it up here, in light of this piece of the journal, they're making it harder, more regulations. That's coming right from China.


GONZALEZ: Especially the censorship of movies, early this year passed from being a government body to a communist party body.




GONZALEZ: That's very important. So, China has parallel institutions. For example, every province will have a governor who represents the government, and they will have a party leader who represents The Chinese Communist Party. The people who really has the power is the Chinese party leader. It's the Chinese leadership, the Politburo, the Communist Party Politburo that they're much more truculent than the government, and they're much more powerful at the same time. Which is very worrisome, that now the censorship of Hollywood movies, and it's not just censorship of Hollywood movies that are shown in the Chinese mainland. It's the censorship of Hollywood movies that are shown to American audiences.


GONZALEZ: I like to talk about that. Now, that is controlled not by the Chinese government, which would be bad enough. That would be awful, and that's the case. It's now controlled by The Communist Party, The Chinese Communist Party.


DOESCHER: And yeah, let's jump into that a little bit here. You've also written that now U.S. scriptwriters and producers are beginning to even preempt the censorship boards in China, and they're starting to write films that they know will be able to pass the test of China.


GONZALEZ: Right, that's exactly right. Yeah.


DOESCHER: So, we're self-censoring ourselves?


GONZALEZ: I think Katzenberg talked about that, and I quoted in one of my papers. It's Pavlovian. If you know you're going to whacked in the head when you do something, over time you tend not to do that. You don't need to be whacked in the head, and then take it back. You will not do it yourself. So, if you're a Hollywood studio, and you know that Tibet is [forboden 00:12:14], you're not going to include anything about Tibet. You know for example, you look at what's happened with ... What's the name of the Hollywood star, the "Pretty Woman," the guy who was in "Pretty Woman" in the 90s?


DOESCHER: Oh, Richard Gere.


GONZALEZ: Richard Gere.




GONZALEZ: Richard Gere who was Hollywood's biggest draw, Hollywood's biggest draw until he disappeared from sight. Why did Richard Gere disappear from sight? Because, he was pal-ing it around with the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibetans. He was promoting the cause of the Dalai Lama, and of Tibetan independence, and of the Buddhist religion. So, any movie that Richard Gere makes is not going to be shown in China, denying hundreds of millions of dollars to Hollywood studios. So, guess who's not in a major Hollywood blockbuster, and hasn't been in the last 20 years? Richard Gere.


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DOESCHER: We are obviously a capitalist society here in America, no question about it. Companies do things based on whether or not they're going to make a profit. There's nothing wrong with that, but I'm wondering where the intersection between economics and free-speech and censorship goes here in this situation. Are we doing wrong trying to make money in this big market, in China?


GONZALEZ: Well, I would not stop Hollywood studio from doing the things they're doing, mainly and basically, because Hollywood studios are private entities. I don't believe that the government has the right, within certain bounds, to tell a private entity what to do. What I would say is that there should be a standard. We should have transparency. If a Hollywood studio has transmitted a scrip to Chinese censors, if Chinese censors have been invited on the set to guide how a movie is made ... all these things that do happen.


DOESCHER: They are? They're on set?


GONZALEZ: Yeah, that’s what I basically just said.




GONZALEZ: If a Chinese censor has anything to do with a movie, it should be very clear to the audiences, it should be shown in the credit, the script of this movie was shown to Chinese censors. This movie was changed at the direction of Chinese censors. American audiences ... There's nothing we can do about Chinese audiences, but American audiences have the right to know which Hollywood studios and which movies are doing these things. Hollywood has a very extensive media industry. The journalists covering Hollywood ought to be writing about this, and ought to be policing the lack of transparency that is taking place.


DOESCHER: Mike, tell us about some other ways China is trying to infiltrate our culture, beyond Hollywood.


GONZALEZ: Well, The Chinese Communist Part is communist, and the communists understand very well then the culture stands upstream from policy and from politics, and if you seize the culture, you've gone a great way towards impacting the population. So just like we write all the time, I write all the time about how Americans who have been influenced by Marxist thinking, have had great sway in the academy, and the media, and in Hollywood. China itself tries to control these as much as it can, to promote its own message.


GONZALEZ: So, it's got for example with radio stations, it's had a series of radio stations through which it transmits Chinese-friendly propaganda. With universities, it has the so-called Confucius Institutes, of which I believe there's a hundred I think, all over the world. Many of them in this country. That is Chinese government controlled, communist party controlled institutes that give universities a lot of money to teach Chinese language and culture. But in exchange for that, there is a contract that is secret, and through which the universities, it is often alleged with good reason, agree not to discuss the three Ts, Taiwan, Tiananmen, or Tibet.




GONZALEZ: Or anything that upsets China. Anything that portrays China in a way that The Communist Party does not agree or like. In fact, many senators have gotten involved with this, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz. Bills have been written to try to prevent China from controlling ... Our universities really should be about educating Americans to be better Americans, better future leaders, and not spreading Chinese propaganda that mischaracterizes the nature of the Chinese regime.


GONZALEZ: Congress does not want to write blunt legislation, that to get at the Confucius Institutes, would stop countries from spending money to spread the culture of their country, which is what the Goethe Institute does with Germany for example. Likewise, with Hollywood, I don't want to see the government telling Hollywood studios what to do. I would like to see the Hollywood studios themselves generate a good practices, in which they will inform audiences of what scripts have been submitted, which movies have been changed, which movies have been approved by Chinese censors. That is not too much to ask.


DOESCHER: Mike, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.


GONZALEZ: Thank you.


DOESCHER: That's it for this week's episode of Heritage Explains. If you enjoy this podcast, we ask that you consider a year-end gift of support. This enable us to continue giving the best conservative policy analysts on today's most critical issues. Just go to, click the donate button at the top of the website, and make your tax deductible gift today. Michelle is on next week with a brand new episode.


That's it for this week's episode of Heritage Explains. If you enjoy this podcast, we ask that you consider a year-end gift of support. This enable us to continue giving the best conservative policy analysts on today's most critical issues. Just go to, click the donate button at the top of the website, and make your tax deductible gift today. Michelle is on next week with a brand new episode.

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