In recent months, the ability of Chinese government censorship to spread beyond China’s borders has made headlines through its effects on Hollywood movies. Most notably, this included the back and forth over the appearance of a Taiwan flag on the main character’s jacket in the film Top Gun. That incident was widely seen as preemptive self-censorship spreading into Hollywood studios looking to access Chinese markets and, more than that, it was seen as an example of producers adjusting a film not because it would actually be released in China, but rather because contentious issues could affect the release of other films by the same company in China. (Most foreign films are not adjusted, they are simply not released because only 34 foreign films are shown in Chinese cinemas per year. This in turn makes those slots extremely valuable and thus can affect decision-making on a wide slate of films, with studios wishing to stay onside with the censors so that their biggest blockbusters make the cut.)
However, another angle to the spread of the Chinese government’s artistic limits is less well considered: the spread of censorship through convenience, rather than financial force.
In his new book, Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues one reason the Chinese government wants to influence other countries is that they’re easier for it to deal with — in a variety of ways — if their systems are more similar. According to Kurlantzick, one of the ways to achieve this influence is to simply make it convenient for that similarity to occur, and one way of achieving that is by providing content to other countries, often cheaply, that conforms to Chinese government thinking (either on China-related issues like Xinjiang or Taiwan, or more broadly). Fitting squarely into the middle of this framework is the concept of “pre-censored” movies.
Pre-censored movies are, according to another new book, this time by Erich Schwartzel, movies made and censored in China and then sold to a network of countries with illiberal (and likely poorer) governments. Schwartzel’s research found, for instance, Kenya’s film minister was willing to boast that it was more politically convenient to his conservative agenda — specifically anti-gay — to import Chinese films rather than having to pay for the process of censoring American films. And Schwartzel has suggested this could become a growing trend.
The proposition is interesting because, in contrast to American suspicion over Chinese military growth, there is a large degree of complacency — and arrogance — over the inherent supremacy of Hollywood films. This is built around the idea that Hollywood is just “so much better” at making films, but also — as Schwartzel outlines on Vox’s Gray Area podcast — the idea that liberal values make for more interesting art because they offer the freedom to explore ideas rather than tacky happy endings. The prospect of “pre-censored” films is a concrete challenge to the idea that (more) liberal production processes will always win by pointing out that other factors are involved in deciding what gets bought and seen.
Of course, in reality, that’s always been the case. Well-financed American film distribution networks, for instance, create a self-perpetuating system where it’s easier to pay to advertise films if you’ve previously sold a lot of them. And anyone who has actually watched Minions 3 will know that Hollywood success is not simply generated by permanent aesthetic genius. What’s more, to draw attention to the potential progress of the Chinese government’s ideology is not to say that American films do not disperse ideology of their own. Liberalism itself is an ideology, and liberal production processes don’t by any means produce “neutral” films — most Hollywood films are about individuals’ choices being rewarded, for example.
But the more simplistic (and arrogant) view of why American films have been such a dominant form of soft power means that, now, an important observation about Chinese film could be missed: Just because Chinese censorship can look ridiculous doesn’t necessarily limit it to the role of a parochial Chinese curiosity. In fact, the very attempts to control the boundaries of acceptable art which can look ridiculous can be convenient advantages in some circumstances, to some governments. And this is worth thinking about, at least.