China’s Battle for Cultural Power Begins at the Box Office

China’s Battle for Cultural Power Begins at the Box Office

China’s Battle for Cultural Power Begins at the Box Office

A conversation with Erich Schwartzel about the vexed relationship between Hollywood and Beijing, how movies became a vehicle for Chinese ideology, and his new book Red Carpet.


The relationship between Hollywood and China has been increasingly intimate, if at times contentious, in the last three decades. By 2020, when the pandemic shut down American film theaters, China had become the largest film consumer in the world. On the one hand, in order to secure access to the Chinese market, Hollywood studios went through a sort of self-censor training program, learning from troubles and successes of movies like Seven Years in Tibet and Kung Fu Panda. On the other hand, many Chinese officials and filmmakers have always looked to Hollywood in its ambition to create an internationally recognized Chinese cultural powerhouse.

Erich Schwartzel, a Wall Street Journal film industry reporter, spent the last few years speaking to insiders and fans in both countries and has woven together a rich and thoughtful account of this history in his new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. We spoke recently about how this delicate relationship has shaped filmmaking in both Hollywood and China, as well as the desire—and danger— of trying to tell a certain kind of story about national identity. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

—Han Zhang

Han Zhang: This book looks back at the Hollywood studios’ interaction with China, starting in the late 1990s—when they made Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun—and learned that humanizing the Dalai Lama was a no-no, to today, when it’s the norm that without a word from the Chinese government, studios like Disney take care to be self-censoring. So the relationship has evolved a lot.

Erich Schwartzel: The two dynamics to keep in mind are that starting around 2008, the Chinese box office started to grow rapidly as the American box office started to falter. So ticket sales were rising in China while staying flat in the US, and it became very obvious that studios would need to target China especially as the movies they were making got more and more expensive: big superhero movies being the ultimate example of that. That was the economic rationale for rushing toward the Chinese market. However, the Chinese market isn’t like any other foreign film markets. It requires placating party censors who watch every movie and approve of its release. And so, the economic leverage that China amassed through its growing box office quickly translated into political leverage and made sure that studios who wanted to maintain that access to the Chinese market would have to play by their rules.

HZ: Hollywood has long been known for exporting ideology—an American brand of democracy and freedom, as well as the touting of American heroism and military might. How is this different from what Chinese movies, or so-called “main melody” movies— films like Wolf Warrior—are trying to achieve?

ES: It’s very similar. The Chinese government’s effort to export its own culture is looking to Hollywood as the guide on how to do it, because American soft power is one of the most effective influence campaigns of the 20th century. There is an effort to replicate that playbook. However, I would say there are some key differences between the two, and the primary one would be the degree to which the Chinese government is involved in the movies it’s making. In American history, we do have examples of the government having a really heavy hand in movies that are made and shown around the world. This was especially the case in World War II, when during the Marshall Plan, movies became tools deployed by the government. But I think the more effective soft power was probably in movies that had less of a political motivation and were more about just making America look cool. You know, like Dirty Dancing and Back to the Future—these movies that just made American movie stars into global stars that sort of cast life in America in a really nice and flattering way. I think China’s efforts are twofold. There are the propaganda movies, or “main melody” movies that the government has a heavy hand in forming, in shaping. And then, there is also this effort to do the harder part, which is making more commercial Chinese films that sell China to the world in the ways that movies about life in America sold America to the world.

HZ: Films have long been a tool for forging a national identity. What kind of an identity are the Hollywood-influenced Chinese films aimed at forging?

ES: It’s a great question. I have found that a couple of things are happening. There are this brand of jingoistic Chinese movies, like Wolf Warrior 2 and some of the Korean War blockbusters, that are being made today. Those movies feel like a cinematic reflection of China’s strength on the world stage, the chest-pounding moment that China finds itself in. There are even theories that this brand of Chinese machismo is also a bit of a response to, and correction of, what is perceived as the century of humiliation in China since the Opium War. There is certainly a fascinating argument to be made that this is a correction of that. I think that’s one bucket. In the other are these more commercial films that are more about just everyday life in China, and that seem to be exploring China’s moment in history and what it’s like to live in a country where things have changed so much in just the past 30 or 40 years. The parallel that I draw in the book is to American cinema in the ’80s when Ronald Reagan was president and there was a sense of pride in being American, and the pride is often contrasted with not being communist or Soviet—so there’s that Cold War duality that, I argue, gave Americans and American culture a sense of pride and unabashed-ness in celebrating America and Americans’ moment in the world.

HZ: Wolf Warrior is an interesting one because many people, without knowing of the movie, are familiar with the term. It kind of speaks to the blockbuster movies and their long shadows in the policy world. And there’s a really interesting detail in your book about the series director Wu Jing. It seems that when he tried to apply to make a third movie of this type, he was actually turned down.

ES: It’s always hard to know exactly why a decision like that is made, but I think a couple of things were happening. One is that there is a sense in certain parts of the party that Wolf Warrior diplomacy is backfiring and that China’s aggression on the world stage is losing more friends than it’s winning. We saw that when Wolf Warrior diplomacy began to take shape, and now it feels like it’s even more pronounced. There is a blowback to that philosophy. And at the same time, in the movie space, there is a shift from those commercial propaganda films to more formulaic propaganda films. So at the moment, many of the big movies at the Chinese box office are these government produced films often about, as I said, the Korean War, which are very popular in China. It seems that the government is trying to get filmmakers into these more sanctioned channels than the pro-China commercial movie channels. There is even the theory that parts of the government didn’t like Wolf Warrior 2 because it’s about a soldier who is kind of going it alone and not relying on the state, and that was not a message that they wanted out there.

HZ: Filmmaking has long been a vehicle of individual expression. The irony for Chinese filmmakers, and increasingly so for many Hollywood studios, is to be aware of a limit set by the Chinese state. There is the thinking that “sure, if we don’t touch on certain topics, there is still a lot of room to tell stories.”

ES: I’m not a filmmaker so I can’t speak to how it hinders creativity because there are beloved films coming out of these countries. I think in China’s system, there is an inevitable exertion of values that the system creates and requires, so that we’ve seen a clash with the Western expectation of the role art should play in society. It’s really tricky. I don’t share this argument, but there are even people who say that you need constraints to art. That effective art does sometimes come from some kind of constraint.

HZ: That’s like the argument around freedom. There is no absolute freedom.

ES: Someone told me that it’s often said that China’s cultural censorship puts a ceiling on its global appeal, and that their movies will not travel around the world as broadly because they are constrained by censorship and these values. And this person challenged me in a very compelling way by saying that there is a Western mentality [to have] that if a movie that was produced under China’s system appeals to millions of Chinese people, then why wouldn’t it appeal to other audiences as well?

HZ: And the rules are unpredictable. Early on, the lesson Hollywood learned in its dealings with the Chinese government was to avoid the subject of Tibet. But it’s never clear if there is any one-size-fits-all appeasement strategy for the censors.

ES: I think unpredictability is the point. It’s not like when a movie gets rejected, there is a memo from Beijing explaining why. The thing that makes China fascinating and frustrating to cover is that just when you think there’s a rule established, something comes along that completely upends it and negates it. So I think the unpredictability has lowered everyone’s risk tolerance in Hollywood because they don’t know where the potential trip wire is. I would go even a step further and say that Chinese leaders in recent years have made a really big fuss about comments or storytelling decisions that feel like they should not be a big deal at all. I think when everyone else in Hollywood sees such an overreaction to something like a comment an actor made about Taiwan or something like that, the response is “Oh, we all have to reassess the risk we will take. We should re-read the script just to make sure there is nothing that could even remotely cause any consternation.” I think it has engendered a culture of self-censorship. I think a lot of people outside Hollywood don’t appreciate the degree to which studio executives have become experts on what Beijing wants and what it doesn’t want. The skill with which studio executives can read a script, as though they are censors in Beijing, and flag anything that might be a problem is pretty astounding.

HZ: This is like a training process, to borrow the Chinese expression you used, “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.”

ES: Incredibly effective. It only takes a couple of examples. It only took Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet for everyone to know that the Dalai Lama was off-limits. Not just on- screen but publicly supporting him, too.

HZ: To put things in perspective, there are a lot of similar situations in history, or contemporarily in some countries that also have had censorship or have tried to enforce a kind of national image or some idea of the correct morals, including the Hays Code; and in the 1930s Hitler’s representatives in LA who went around and harassed actors; and in the last chapter you mentioned the Kenyan censorship, where they erase mentions of gay and other notions they find to be problematic. People look at the Hays Code as a matter of the past, like a phase society just has to grow out of. Given China’s outsized influence in today’s global film industry, are we entering an unknown future in this regard?

ES: I think Chinese censorship is certainly going to be a presence in Hollywood, but the question of whether societies just have to age out of these kinds of systems is a fascinating one. I think there has been progress made in terms of the boundaries that Chinese filmmakers have pushed. It feels inevitable. There is always going to be some march of progress when it comes to boundary pushing. Maybe one step forward, two steps back, but there might be some. The key difference, though, is that the Hays Code is really a religiously motivated reaction to storytelling. The Chinese Communist Party is a politically motivated one. The concern of the CCP when they censor films is not keeping people happy or keeping people moral but keeping stability in the regime. So I don’t know how public morals could challenge that, as the kind of paternalistic religiosity shifted. There would need to be quite a dramatic change in China for the CCP not to keep its power as its top priority.

HZ: Is there going to be a breaking point, because there’s just too much stress, and studios will change their whole approach?

ES: It’s possible. There already was that with the pursuit of the co-productions, which were these deals where if you were an official U.S.-China co-production, you could make more money at the Chinese box office. But they were absolute nightmares to do because the studios were never sure what the right mix of US and Chinese elements was. So you might go through all this work and still not be deemed a co-production and then not get the money that you were counting on. And that frustration has led to a real drop in the number of co-productions that are being pursued. I think that this new political uncertainty is going to cause another wave of frustration or just the belief that the risk is not worth it. However, overall, the Chinese box office, and the Chinese market, is still too lucrative to pass up. And so, you might see studios more reluctant to hire Chinese talent or cast Chinese actors or pursue Chinese stories because it just feels like everywhere you go there is a land mine you might step on. But, it doesn’t mean that the Chinese market is going to be forgotten altogether.

HZ: In the past few years, the American public has become more aware of Chinese influence in the American filmmaking and theater business. You made the point that during the Trump era, Pompeo and others made these arguments surface. I think as with many other things involving China, there is a fine line between paranoia and Republican hawkishness. This is a legitimate concern in dealing with this space, since China has become the largest market for films.

ES: I think that is changing. I think the Trump administration’s approach to China was so extreme and so hawkish that it made liberals and the left afraid to criticize China because they didn’t want to appear to be xenophobic or there might have been an overall reluctance to align themselves in any way with something that Trump was saying or supporting. And that was the case when I was reporting the book. I could detect that. I could feel it. And there were times when you would have bipartisan opposition to Chinese censorship with situations like what happened with the NBA. When the NBA rushed to get back in China’s good graces, after offending them, everyone from A.O.C. to Ted Cruz said, “This is screwed up: We shouldn’t have American companies bowing to authoritarian regimes.” I do think, though, even in just promoting this book, that while it is a topic that speaks to, as you said, Republican hawks, it is more and more becoming an issue that democrats and progressives are paying more attention to and being more open to criticizing. You saw that with the Olympics recently, and the focus on human rights abuses and free expression issues in China. I think you are going to see it more and more with the question of what Western companies are doing to maintain access to the Chinese market. It feels like we are in a healthier space for discourse than we were. When there was an extreme hawkishness on one side, it almost led to a reluctance to engage the issue, on the other.

HZ: What are some principles that you think would be wise to follow, going forward, in terms of engaging with China’s film market?

ES: I don’t know what the steps are, but I think one thing that Hollywood and Western business executives in general should anticipate is greater and greater scrutiny on the concessions that are made to maintain access in China. This does not feel like an issue, or a concern, that’s going away. More and more consumers, and more and more elected officials, are waking up to this dynamic, and I don’t know if this is inherent patriotism or what it is, but there is a queasiness that is felt by a lot of Americans when they hear about the censoring that goes on. One reason that movies are such a relevant area to explore this is that we have always expected the American movie to do America’s bidding, and so it affects us differently than hearing about an airline company changing a map on its website. It affects us differently, and in some ways people find it scarier. I don’t think this is something that’s going to go away, but China is also not going to go away. I think Hollywood is still going to need China, and maintaining that access without causing intense pushback and alienation domestically is going to get harder and harder.

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