Chinese Government Censorship Poses Clear Risk to Creative Freedom in U.S. Filmmaking
New PEN America report shows how filmmakers are bending to censorship pressures from Beijing
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(New York, NY) — In a report out today, the literary and human rights group PEN America said Chinese government censorship is exerting influence on Hollywood and the global filmmaking industry, posing a clear threat to free speech and artistic expression. The report, Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing: The U.S. Film Industry and Chinese Government Influence, reveals how one of the most censorious governments in the world has made its influence felt on filmmaking in the United States, subverting one of the U.S.’ most potent cultural exports.
“The Chinese Communist Party is increasingly shaping what global audiences see,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America and a lead author of the report. “While we are all well aware of the strict controls that China’s government maintains over dissent, independent thought, and creativity within its own borders, the long arm of Chinese censorship—powered by vast economic incentives—has also reached deep into Hollywood, shaping perceptions, inculcating sensitivities, and reshaping the bounds of what can be shown, said, and told.”
Through dozens of interviews with industry insiders as well as secondary research, PEN America found that the U.S. film industry, in ways large and small, has over the past decade increasingly capitulated to Chinese government pressure to alter and censor films. Many producers and screenwriters spoke to PEN America anonymously, citing the financial and professional risks associated with any criticism of China’s growing influence.
Studios have made content changes to films, either at the direct request of government censors or increasingly through voluntary self-censorship in order to gain or sustain access to the tightly controlled and lucrative Chinese film market; in some instances, studios have even permitted state censors on film sets or in production studios. Individual actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers who are seen to resist Chinese influence may find their own career opportunities compromised.
As one scholar noted in the report, the Chinese government “will focus on everything that has a China component in it. Don’t think that if you’re doing something that’s not intended for China, that’s an indie film meant for a small market, that China won’t notice and that it won’t hurt your blockbuster film. It will.”
“While some of these alterations may seem minor—the cutting of a Taiwanese flag here or the removal of a minor plot point there—cumulatively such censoriousness cuts against artistic and cultural freedom, silences dissenting voices and can skew the global perceptions that are shaped by powerful films,” Tager said. “Changes can be small, but they have to be viewed in the context of China’s larger policies: the repression and erasure of minority cultures, the burnishing of its global image, and the reification of government or the Party and President Xi Jinping. These tropes all manifest in the instances of censorship and self-censorship documented in the report.”
“We recognize the danger that at a time of rising tension between the U.S. and China, a report like this risks becoming political fodder. That is not our intent,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “As an organization that stands for the unhampered transmission of thought across borders, we believe that dialogue and connections between Chinese and U.S. culture are essential, and we work to bring Chinese voices to U.S. audiences and foster cross-border discourse. We also recognize that many governments, including that of the U.S., can look to entertainment as a form of soft power. None of that negates the importance of a forthright, fact-based discussion about the implications of Chinese influence, a conversation that many in Hollywood are reluctant to have. As the first drafts of the history of the COVID-19 pandemic are rendered, we need to ensure that the stories we tell reflect truth and unhampered creative expression, and do not bend to the dictates of any government.”
The report calls on Hollywood and industry leaders to take a stand against such censorship, from Beijing as well as other censorious governments. The report:
- Makes specific calls for added transparency to avoid a situation where peremptory censorship is simply an unquestioned way of doing business;
- Urges filmmakers to publicly disclose requests they receive to censor their work, and commit to a full and transparent process when it comes to responding to such requests;
- Insists that Hollywood take a firmer stand to defend Chinese filmmakers who have faced serious reprisals for their work;
- And calls on filmmakers to make a sincere and measurable effort to include Asian and Asian American characters and voices that have been historically caricatured or wholesale excluded from mainstream filmmaking.
“We recognize that the commercial stakes here are high, and are not expecting studios and executives to simply turn their backs on the Chinese market or Chinese investors,” said PEN America’s Tager. “Indeed, we would not want to see them close off this important space for cultural and artistic engagement across borders. But as an industry built on creative freedom, Hollywood has an essential role to play in ensuring that foreign censorship does not reshape the landscape of American and global storytelling on film.”
PEN America has previously documented literary censorship in China. In 2015, PEN America reported on Chinese publishers’ censorship of Chinese-language translations of foreign authors in the report Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship. In 2016, PEN America analyzed the CCP’s efforts to affect foreign media’s coverage of the country in Darkened Screen: Constraints on Foreign Journalists in China, and its enforced disappearance of five publishers connected to a Hong Kong bookstore in Writing on the Wall: Disappeared Booksellers and Free Expression in Hong Kong.
In 2018, PEN America’s research on social media censorship in China for Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China included an analysis of how Beijing’s digital censorship affected users of Chinese digital platforms even when they were outside the country.
On June 4, PEN America announced the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award would honor Chinese essayist and activist Xu Zhiyong. Xu was detained in February 2020 for writing an essay that critiqued the leadership of China’s president Xi Jinping, including his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and called on Xi to resign. The Freedom to Write Award, given annually, recognizes an imprisoned writer targeted for the exercise of free expression. Of the 47 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 41 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.
PEN America will host a virtual launch event on August 5 at 4pm PDT/7pm EDT. More information can be found here.