Global Economy

China’s promotion of domestic movie industry reeks its soft power ambitions

At a time when the ‘Wuhan virus’ kept millions of moviegoers worldwide away from the theatres and brought the movie industry to a halt, China officially pipped North America to emerge as the world’s biggest film market. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieved this by restricting Hollywood films’ access to China and promoting domestic films. The CCP wants to make China a ‘strong film power’ to control the domestic narrative and project abroad a correct narrative of China.

The CCP’s propaganda department controls access to the Chinese market. In recent years as U.S.-China power rivalry intensified, the party has astutely utilised its powers and the fact that in 2020 China emerged as the world’s biggest movie market.

It is understood that last year, China blocked most Hollywood blockbusters’ releases under the pretext of COVID-19 pandemic. The blocked films included some major Marvel Studio releases, including Eternals and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. According to
Variety magazine, not just Marvel but overall share of the American films in the Chinese market dipped last year – from 47% in 2019 to 39% in 2021.

A significant consideration for the CCP is the content of the Hollywood movies and the behaviour of the studio, directors, and actors vis-à-vis China. The CCP shuns anyone who is perceived as demonstrating an anti-China attitude, and so are their movies. For instance, Eternals movie director Chloé Zhao became an eyesore for the CCP after her old anti-China quotes went viral, including one in which she asserted that “there are lies everywhere” in China.

So much was the displeasure towards Zhao that even when she won the coveted Oscar for the Best Director, becoming the first Asian woman to do so, there was no coverage of her achievement in the Chinese media.

It may be recalled how the 1997 movie ‘Seven Years in Tibet,’ which depicted the Tibetans’ experiences of Chinese repression, met with a disapproving response from the CCP. Columbia TriStar, the studio that produced the movie, was slapped a five-year ban by China. Moreover, the director Jean-Jacques Annaud and actors who starred in the film were restricted from entering China.

The staggering economic losses caused by the spread of the Wuhan virus and the massive investments in making contemporary films mean that major Hollywood studios are unwilling to take on China. Moreover, given the significance of the Chinese market, big Hollywood studios have outdone each other to secure and retain their access to the lucrative market.

To cater to China’s censorship theatrics, many in Hollywood have resorted to self-censoring. This includes removing content from their movies that can be perceived by the CCP as critical of China and going further by adding adulatory content which would please Chinese leaders. These developments reinforce the fact that China has simply become too lucrative for Hollywood to resist.

Curiously, the shutting out of Hollywood films has coincided with a revival of China’s domestic movie industry in the aftermath of COVID-19. In recent years, the Chinese industry has produced some notable blockbusters, including the biggest hit of 2021, the Korean war epic, The Battle at Lake Changjin, which earned approximately $892 million at the box office.

The film also won approval from the
Global Times, which applauded its contents and emphasised a movie critic’s observation that the main melody of the film is the Chinese audience’s favourite theme. According to the
Variety magazine, “main melody is a description of mainstream, patriotic and pro-Communist content, which authorities require state- and privately-owned studios to produce.”

In November 2021, during the CCP’s sixth plenary session, the China Film Administration unveiled an ambitious five-year plan to make China a ‘strong film power’ by 2035, which can be achieved by “adhering to the Party’s total leadership over film work.” Besides its emphasis on releasing more movies, consolidating film distribution, and expanding theatres in rural areas, the plan emphasises that Chinese films should strive to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable image of China.”

In addition, the plan promises support for political works, science-fiction, and animation that “exhibit the Chinese national spirit and Eastern aesthetics” and “educate and guide young people to… establish cultural self-confidence.”

The plan also mentions that more films should “eulogize the party, the motherland, the people and heroes so as to pass on red [Communist] genes and continue [the Party’s] lineage.”

This is one more dimension of China’s charm offensive as it seeks to project a benign face to the world and divert attention away from its assertive behaviour vis-à-vis its neighbours, its repression of ethnic minorities, repression in Hong Kong, and unethical practices like intellectual property theft.


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