Killing with a Borrowed Knife: Exploring Chinese Influence in Hollywood
By Morgan A. Martin and Clinton J. Williamson
In 2017, Mr. Darren Tromblay wrote No More Fun and Games: How China’s Acquisition of US Media Entities Threatens America’s National Security for Small Wars Journal. In his article, Mr. Tromblay posits that Chinese investments in American theater chains and film studios create pathways for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to “achieve its political objectives… with a minimum of saber-rattling”. In the ensuing four years, the PRC has expanded its de facto control over the American film industry through investments, economic coercion, and acquisitions. Overall, Mr. Tromblay’s assessment was correct; this article explores involvement in the entertainment industry, and finds that China has the placement and access to shape public perceptions. An examination of film as propaganda in general, the scope of Chinese interests in Hollywood, and CCP’s use of propaganda films will demonstrate that the PRC’s creeping influence has become a grave security threat indeed.
Films as Influence
But first—why popular films? For a start, as a means of influence, it is very effective. The coordinator for the US government’s WWII-era domestic propaganda efforts, Elmer Davis, had this to say about it: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.” This has since been corroborated by independent research: audiences are more open to persuasion when they’re unaware that entertainment’s message is political. The same core message disseminated through different films over time is likely to be effective; repetition and consistency are cornerstones of effective propaganda campaigns.
As of 2021 the PRC is poised to call the shots on what does and does not make it off the cutting room floor and into American theaters. Chinese companies have been becoming increasingly involved in Hollywood since the PRC’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. They have made direct investments in three of the five major Hollywood film studios (Sony, Warner, and Universal) and are able to exercise economic leverage over four (Sony, Warner, Universal, and Disney). A Chinese-owned company, Dalian Wanda, purchased both Legendary Pictures and the AMC Theater chain in the mid-2010s; with more than 8,000 screens in over 600 locations nationwide, AMC is the single largest theater chain in the US.
Some may question if these investments and acquisitions should be cause for alarm. Foreign companies invest in the United States quite frequently, and vice versa—this is part and parcel of the global economy. The situation with China’s involvement in the entertainment industry is different for three reasons. First, China has a well-developed information warfare doctrine that calls for using various media to influence foreign audiences to further the PRC’s geopolitical goals. Second, the PRC’s 2017 National Intelligence Law mandates that any Chinese organization, company, or citizen cooperate with the government to provide assistance with any “national intelligence work.” Finally, the Chinese government has mandated that all “private” business firms will have Chinese Communist Party (CCP) representation in leadership positions to ensure that companies are literally toeing the party line. Investment provides access and placement for members of Chinese firms in film studios; access and placement provides opportunities to insert messaging or prevent non-flattering portrayals of China from making the final cut.
Furthermore, the CCP has known the value of propaganda since before WWII. As a military commander, Mao Zedong said that his guerrilla leaders should spend more time in “propaganda work” than actually fighting, “for their most important job is to win over the people.” The CCP later formalized Mao’s viewpoint during the 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, during which they declared that all art should serve political objectives. In line with Vladimir Lenin three decades prior, the CCP declared that cinema was the most essential art form for instigating social revolutions. . In the following decades, strict controls on financing, creation, and distribution meant that only CCP-approved propaganda films could be screened in the PRC.
Influence in Action
Skeptics counter that China’s investments in the entertainment industry are purely for economic reasons, and that the PRC has no interest in controlling narratives. Consider this, however: while American directors, producers, and actors once leveraged Hollywood as a platform to spread pro-American messages, call out injustices, and foment social change, they now avoid topics that are sensitive to the PRC, a country in which injustices abound and movements for social change are crushed. The PRC has numerous examples of this, not least of which are the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the ongoing Uighur Genocide. There has clearly been a shift in who Hollywood is willing to take to task. Disney, in particular, faced a steep uphill battle to get into the China market because of a 1997 film that depicted the life of the Dalai Lama; they have since tread carefully on China issues. Numerous actors and musicians have been banned from China or otherwise blacklisted for voicing their support for Tibet: Richard Gere, Lady Gaga, Jon Bon Jovi, and Bjork are perhaps the most notable. Awkward apologies are often required to get back in the CCP’s good graces, as was recently seen with John Cena. In an effort to appease CCP censors and maintain access to the lucrative Chinese market, production companies have willingly changed the ethnicities of characters (the Ancient One in Dr. Strange and North Koreans in the Red Dawn reboot), worked directly with CCP censors to make sure films passed their scrutiny (Disney’s 2020 production of Mulan), or completely erased references to Taiwan (Maverick’s jacket patches in Top Gun: Maverick).
Like Russian influence in the 2016 Presidential election, it is unclear how effective China’s efforts have been. Unlike Russia, however, Chinese companies have spent billions of dollars to gain access to American institutions to be able to influence American audiences. While the news and findings of Russia’s influence operations held the nation’s attention for the better part of four years, the latter barely makes the news. Mr. Tromblay’s assessment was correct: it’s time for decision makers throughout the US government to recognize the threat that China’s infiltration of the entertainment industry represents.
Abernathy, Kristen. “Why The MCU Changed the Ancient One's Race & Gender.” ScreenRant, December 16, 2020. https://screenrant.com/doctor-strange-ancient-one-gender-race-swap-whitewashing/.
Adkins, Todd, and Jeremiah J. Castle. “‘Moving’ Pictures? Experimental Evidence of Cinematic Influence on Political Attitudes.” Social Science Quarterly 95, no. 5 (December 2014).
Brzeski, Patrick. “China Exec Who Put $500M Into Universal Pictures Says ‘More to Come.’” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, April 21, 2016. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/china-exec-who-put-500m-884961.
Caffrey, Michelle. “Universal Parks CEO: Trade War Isn't Disrupting Beijing Project.” bizjournals.com. Philadelphia Business Journals, September 13, 2019. https://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/news/2019/09/13/universal-parks-ceo-trade-war-isnt-disrupting.html.
Donald, Stephanie, Michael Keane, and Hong Yin. Media in China: Consumption, Content, and Crisis. London: Routledge, 2014.
Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Tiananmen Square Incident.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., April 20, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/event/Tiananmen-Square-incident.
Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1973.
Fish, Isaac Stone. “Opinion | Why Disney's New 'Mulan' Is a Scandal.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 14, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/09/07/why-disneys-new-mulan-is-scandal/.
Frater, Patrick. “Wanda-Sony Pictures Financing and Marketing Deal Is Over.” Variety. Variety, November 22, 2017. https://variety.com/2017/film/asia/wanda-sony-pictures-finance-deal-halted-1202620411/.
Fritz, Ben, and John Horn. “Reel China: Hollywood Tries to Stay on China's Good Side.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2011. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-china-red-dawn-20110316-story.html.
Garrahan, Matthew, and Charles Clover. “China's Hollywood Romance Turns Sour.” Financial Times, December 26, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/d5d3d06e-de8b-11e7-a8a4-0a1e63a52f9c.
Hoffman, Samantha, and Elsa Kania. “Huawei and the Ambiguity of China's Intelligence and Counter-Espionage Laws.” The Strategist, September 12, 2018. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/huawei-and-the-ambiguity-of-chinas-intelligence-and-counter-espionage-laws/.
Kokas, Aynne. Hollywood Made in China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017.
Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. “What to Show the World: The Office of War Information and Hollywood, 1942-1945.” The Journal of American History 64, no. 1 (June 1977).
Lindahl, Chris. “Tom Cruise's Jacket Stripped of Taiwanese, Japanese Patches in 'Top Gun: Maverick' Trailer.” IndieWire. IndieWire, July 23, 2019. https://www.indiewire.com/2019/07/tom-cruises-jacket-taiwanese-japanese-patches-in-top-gun-maverick-trailer-1202160078/.
Mattis, Peter. “Yes, the Atrocities in Xinjiang Constitute a Genocide.” Foreign Policy, April 15, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/15/xinjiang-uyghurs-intentional-genocide-china/.
Minter, Adam. “How Disney Conquered China.” Arkansas Online. Bloomberg View, May 5, 2018. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/may/05/how-disney-conquered-china-20180505/.
Pomfret, John. “China's Leader Attacks His Greatest Threat.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 25, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/01/china-xi-jinping-business-entrepreneurs/617777/.
Qin, Amy, and Audrey Carlsen. “How China Is Rewriting Its Own Script.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/18/world/asia/china-movies.html.
Steigrad, Alexandra. “Regal's Owner Cineworld Gets $750 Million Lifeline to Avoid Bankruptcy.” New York Post. New York Post, November 23, 2020. https://nypost.com/2020/11/23/regals-owner-cineworld-gets-750m-lifeline-to-avoid-bankruptcy/#:~:text=Regal%20Entertainment's%20UK%2Dbased%20owner,afloat%20through%20the%20coronavirus%20pandemic.
Stoll, Julia. “Leading Cinema Circuits in North America by Number of Screens 2020.” Statista, January 13, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/188565/north-american-movie-theater-circuits-by-number-of-screens/.
Stone, Maddie. “Sony Made Pixels Even Lamer to Appease Chinese Authorities.” Gizmodo. Gizmodo, July 25, 2015. https://gizmodo.com/sony-made-pixels-even-lamer-to-appease-chinese-authorit-1720120737.
Thomas, Denny, and Adam Jourdan. “Warner Bros Joins Wave of Hollywood Tie-Ups in China.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, September 21, 2015. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-warnerbrothers-chinaventure-idUSKCN0RK14020150921.
Tromblay, Darren. “No More Fun and Games: How China's Acquisition of U.S. Media Entities Threatens America's National Security.” No More Fun and Games: How China's Acquisition of U.S. Media Entities Threatens America's National Security | Small Wars Journal, May 22, 2017. https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/no-more-fun-and-games-how-china%E2%80%99s-acquisition-of-us-media-entities-threatens-america%E2%80%99s-nati.
Victor, Daniel. “John Cena Apologizes to China for Calling Taiwan a Country.” The New York Times. The New York Times, May 25, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/25/world/asia/john-cena-taiwan-apology.html.
Wortzel, Larry M. Rep. The Chinese People's Liberation Army and Information Warfare. Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College Press, 2014.
Yu, Hongmei. “Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice: The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 25, no. 2 (2013).
Zedong, Mao. Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. Eastford, CT: Marino Fine Books, 2017.
Zedong, Mao. “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art.” Marxists.org- The Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, 2004. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm.
 Darren Tromblay , “No More Fun and Games: How China's Acquisition of U.S. Media Entities Threatens America's National Security,” No More Fun and Games: How China's Acquisition of U.S. Media Entities Threatens America's National Security | Small Wars Journal, May 22, 2017, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/no-more-fun-and-games-how-china%E2%80%99s-acquisition-of-us-media-entities-threatens-america%E2%80%99s-nati.
 Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, “What to Show the World: The Office of War Information and Hollywood, 1942-1945,” The Journal of American History 64, no. 1 (June 1977), 87-88.
 Todd Adkins and Jeremiah J. Castle, “‘Moving’ Pictures? Experimental Evidence of Cinematic Influence on Political Attitudes,” Social Science Quarterly 95, no. 5 (December 2014), 1230.
 Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1973), 17-18.
 Aynne Kokas, Hollywood Made in China (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017), 9.
 Patrick Frater, “Wanda-Sony Pictures Financing and Marketing Deal Is Over,” Variety (Variety, November 22, 2017), https://variety.com/2017/film/asia/wanda-sony-pictures-finance-deal-halted-1202620411/; Denny Thomas and Adam Jourdan, “Warner Bros Joins Wave of Hollywood Tie-Ups in China,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, September 21, 2015), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-warnerbrothers-chinaventure-idUSKCN0RK14020150921; Patrick Brzeski, “China Exec Who Put $500M Into Universal Pictures Says ‘More to Come,’” The Hollywood Reporter (The Hollywood Reporter, April 21, 2016), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/china-exec-who-put-500m-884961; Maddie Stone, “Sony Made Pixels Even Lamer to Appease Chinese Authorities,” Gizmodo (Gizmodo, July 25, 2015), https://gizmodo.com/sony-made-pixels-even-lamer-to-appease-chinese-authorit-1720120737; Michelle Caffrey, “Universal Parks CEO: Trade War Isn't Disrupting Beijing Project,” bizjournals.com (Philadelphia Business Journals, September 13, 2019), https://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/news/2019/09/13/universal-parks-ceo-trade-war-isnt-disrupting.html; Adam Minter, “How Disney Conquered China,” Arkansas Online (Bloomberg View, May 5, 2018), https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2018/may/05/how-disney-conquered-china-20180505/.
 Alexandra Steigrad, “Regal's Owner Cineworld Gets $750 Million Lifeline to Avoid Bankruptcy,” New York Post (New York Post, November 23, 2020), https://nypost.com/2020/11/23/regals-owner-cineworld-gets-750m-lifeline-to-avoid-bankruptcy; Julia Stoll, “Leading Cinema Circuits in North America by Number of Screens 2020,” Statista, January 13, 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/188565/north-american-movie-theater-circuits-by-number-of-screens/.
 Larry M. Wortzel, “The Chinese People's Liberation Army and Information Warfare” (Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College Press, 2014).
 Samantha Hoffman et al., “Huawei and the Ambiguity of China's Intelligence and Counter-Espionage Laws,” The Strategist, September 12, 2018.
 John Pomfret, “China's Leader Attacks His Greatest Threat,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, January 25, 2021), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/01/china-xi-jinping-business-entrepreneurs/617777/.
 Mao Zedong, Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Eastford, CT: Marino Fine Books, 2017), 8.
 Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” Marxists.org- The Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, 2004, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm.
 Stephanie Donald, Michael Keane, and Hong Yin, Media in China: Consumption, Content, and Crisis (London: Routledge, 2014), 33-37.
 Hongmei Yu, “Visual Spectacular, Revolutionary Epic, and Personal Voice: The Narration of History in Chinese Main Melody Films,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 25, no. 2 (2013), 168-170.
 Matthew Garrahan and Charles Clover, “China's Hollywood Romance Turns Sour,” Financial Times, December 26, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/d5d3d06e-de8b-11e7-a8a4-0a1e63a52f9c.
 Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Tiananmen Square Incident,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., April 20, 2021), https://www.britannica.com/event/Tiananmen-Square-incident; Peter Mattis, “Yes, the Atrocities in Xinjiang Constitute a Genocide,” Foreign Policy, April 15, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/15/xinjiang-uyghurs-intentional-genocide-china/.
 Isaac Stone Fish, “Opinion | Why Disney's New 'Mulan' Is a Scandal,” The Washington Post (WP Company, September 14, 2020).
 Amy Qin and Audrey Carlsen, “How China Is Rewriting Its Own Script,” The New York Times (The New York Times, November 18, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/18/world/asia/china-movies.html.
 Daniel Victor, “John Cena Apologizes to China for Calling Taiwan a Country,”The New York Times (The New York Times, May 25, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/25/world/asia/john-cena-taiwan-apology.html.
 Ben Fritz and John Horn , “Reel China: Hollywood Tries to Stay on China's Good Side,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2011), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-china-red-dawn-20110316-story.html; Kristen Abernathy, “Why The MCU Changed The Ancient One's Race & Gender,” ScreenRant, December 16, 2020, https://screenrant.com/doctor-strange-ancient-one-gender-race-swap-whitewashing/; Chris Lindahl, “Tom Cruise's Jacket Stripped of Taiwanese, Japanese Patches in 'Top Gun: Maverick' Trailer,” IndieWire (IndieWire, July 23, 2019), https://www.indiewire.com/2019/07/tom-cruises-jacket-taiwanese-japanese-patches-in-top-gun-maverick-trailer-1202160078/.