In his 2022 book Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, Erich Schwartzel makes a case that China’s current system of censoring American films bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi playbook. As a film industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Schwartzel is perfectly positioned to write this sweeping story of Hollywood’s perverse relationship with China.
Throughout the 1930s, German officials presided over a system of censorship and coercion. For years, this system forced Hollywood to suppress stories that offended Nazi sensibilities in exchange for access to German markets.
For example, German censors demanded that Universal Studios scrub its 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front of any scene that might demean Germans. Hollywood obliged and deleted unflattering depictions of German soldiers. German censors further demanded that the edited version of the film be the version shown not only in Germany, but in cinemas around the world. Georg Gyssling, “Hitler’s ambassador to Hollywood,” exerted pressure on studios to cancel screenings of anti-Nazi films like Are We Civilized and Mad Dog. It wasn’t until the start of World War II that Hollywood stopped doing Germany’s bidding.
Today, China exerts similar power in Hollywood. In the 2010s, the Chinese company Wanda bought AMC for $2.6 billion and Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion. In 2017, the number of movie screens in China (50,766) surpassed that of the U.S. In 2020, Chinese ticket sales exceeded ticket sales in the United States, making China the number one box-office market in the world. This huge market share means that Hollywood has begun tailoring its casting, story lines, and dialogue to fit Chinese—not American—audiences.
Over the past twenty years, China has translated its economic leverage into political leverage. Chinese censors routinely ask studios in Hollywood to scrub scripts and finished movies of scenes that might somehow damage China’s Communist system. China’s de facto veto power over Hollywood’s films means that most portrayals of China are, in effect, state-sanctioned propaganda. Producers and directors must showcase “a China of sparkling new cities, where young and old live together in harmony and prosperity,” Schwartzel observes.
In the 1990s, American filmmakers learned that China would punish political missteps with economic sanctions. For Sony’s sympathetic portrayal of the Dalai Lama in Seven Years in Tibet, China threatened to disrupt the company’s electronics supply chain—which would cost billions to rebuild. When Disney made a movie about the Dalai Lama, Kundun, Chinese authorities threatened to cancel Disney’s TV channel and theme park. To appease China, Disney quietly strangled the film by minimizing its marketing budget. After poor marketing led to poor returns, Disney had a plausible reason not to release the film to theaters nationwide. On an elaborate apology tour, Disney officials boasted to Chinese officials that very few people had seen Kundun.
By the turn of the century, Hollywood directors and producers had learned not to broach subjects (Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tiananmen) that offend the Communist Chinese. They had also standardized a lobbying process to get China’s approval for its films. Early in the movie’s life cycle, international distributors meet with Chinese film bureau officials. American studios have to satisfy layers of Chinese bureaucrats before a movie hits the market.
Schwartzel recounts dozens of stories of how American films have been edited by Chinese censors. Some of these changes were minor; others required the rewriting of whole scripts. The 2015 movie Pixels deleted a scene in which the Great Wall gets destroyed. (The Taj Mahal is blown up instead.) The Chinese version of Top Gun removed the Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise’s jacket. In the original cut of 2006’s Mission Impossible III, Tom Cruise chases villains through the streets of Shanghai. At China’s request, Paramount Pictures cut from the movie scenes that depicted Shanghai’s ubiquitous clotheslines.
In the original plot of the 2012 remake of Red Dawn, Chinese paratroopers land on suburban American lawns and Chinese generals take over city squares. Chinese censors demanded that the producers of Red Dawn change the enemy in the film. MGM executives decided that North Korea, rather than China, would invade the United States. The movie had already been shot, but MGM methodically scrubbed every scene in the film, at a cost of more than $1 million. Actors who filmed scenes as Chinese invaders were turned into North Korean soldiers.
Schwartzel describes the massive editing effort needed to swap out Chinese soldiers for North Korean ones: “From a collection of cubicles in small offices darkened by window shades, the workers dragged their mouses across the footage frame by frame until China’s red-and yellow stars were replaced with North Korea’s red, white, and blue horizontal stripes. China was out of the picture.”
Schwartzel reports plenty of other instances of Beijing’s tinkering with American movies. In the original script of Paramount’s 2014 production Transformers: Age of Extinction, Hong Kong gets demolished by robots when Americans arrive to rescue the city. China’s film bureau demanded that Paramount change the end of the film so that Beijing fighter jets rather than American jets come to Hong Kong’s rescue.
In the rewritten final scenes of the film, Hong Kong officials watch in terror as skyscrapers crumble around them. “We’ve got to call the central government for help!” one of them shouts. The film cuts to a hotel in Beijing, where the Chinese minister of defense says, “The central government will protect Hong Kong at all costs. We have fighter jets on the way.”
In the final version of Transformers, American democracy is represented by a group of corrupt and incompetent goons. Chinese government officials, on the other hand, are efficient, disciplined, and resolute. “Transformers: Age of Extinction is a very patriotic film,” noted Variety. “It’s just Chinese patriotism on the screen, not American.”
Hollywood’s Reverse Censorship
With Chinese box-office riches in mind, Hollywood studios have begun to practice a kind of reverse censorship. Rather than waiting for China’s retroactive review, American filmmakers preemptively create characters, scenes, and products designed to appeal to Chinese bureaucrats. Some of these additions border on the ridiculous, as when a middle-aged man in Texas pulls out a Chinese Construction Bank card to withdraw money from an ATM. Chinese audiences are often amused by these “Chinese elements,” which they derisively call “soy sauce.”
Meanwhile, as Hollywood studios have obediently stripped their movies of Chinese villains, Chinese filmmakers have not extended the same courtesy to Americans. The main adversary in the 2017 Chinese blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 is Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), an American leader of mercenary soldiers in a war-torn African country. Big Daddy is a vile caricature of American sadism and entitlement who looks at the African villages as playthings he can destroy. During the final battle in the movie, Chinese superhero Leng Feng (Wu Jing) defeats Big Daddy in a climactic fight. Big Daddy says, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me.” As Leng stabs Big Daddy in the throat, Leng says, “That is f***ing history.” Leng ends the movie by hoisting a Chinese flag above his head and riding through the countryside, where the streets are lined with adoring African villagers.
When Schwartzel asks Hollywood executives about acceding to Chinese censors, they often reply that they change movies for many foreign countries. This is true. Yet most of these changes involve simply editing out nudity and profanity. Very rarely do other countries impose ideological litmus tests on filmmakers. Only China demands that Hollywood change movies that will never be shown in China.
Schwartzel sets his analysis in the context of China’s celebrity culture and propaganda efforts. He interviews China’s richest man, whose son is “best known for buying his dog two gold Apple Watches–one for each front leg.” He interviews impoverished villagers outside Shanghai who were relocated to make room for Disney’s theme park. He tells the story of Chinese businessmen and starlets who have vanished from public life without explanation. He ends the book in the Kenyan village of Suswa, where China is delivering satellite dishes to villagers to pipe in Chinese television shows in a “campaign for African opinion.”
China’s ambition is to match Hollywood’s ability to win viewer loyalty. What the Chinese government fails to understand is that critical cinematic portrayals of American life give Hollywood credibility with American audiences. Hollywood movies regularly cast government officials as villains who mastermind conspiracies that heroes must expose and disrupt. Movies that challenge the governing authorities and expose a country’s imperfections serve a vital social purpose, and they are a sign that Hollywood trusts its viewers.
Even an unabashed patriot like John Wayne qualified his swagger with a thoughtful acknowledgement of America’s shortcomings. Wayne’s willingness to “call America on its bull****” is precisely what made Wayne such a beloved American icon. As Hollywood revels in its Chinese box office revenues, it should recall that, in the long run, critical self-reflection—not autocratic self-indulgence—will win the hearts and minds of the public.