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As pro-democracy protests roiled Hong Kong this summer, a popular Chinese-American actress waded into the conflict with a social media post: “I support the Hong Kong police; you can beat me up now,” she wrote on the Chinese platform Weibo.
Liu Yifei, who will star in Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” next year, drew backlash in the United States and Hong Kong. Many on social media who criticized the post felt Liu was backing an authoritarian regime when she voiced support for the police, who had been admonished by the U.N. Human Rights office for using violent tactics against protesters. The hashtag #BoycottMulan began trending on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
But then, to counter the negative blowback, the hashtag #SupportMulan began circulating. Twitter later said those messages had originated from China, in a wider campaign to “sow political discord in Hong Kong” through social media. Twitter also said it took down more than 900 accounts that had been involved.
As that nation’s own entertainment industry has grown exponentially in recent years, it has also increasingly leveraged the influence of stars like Liu as a way to promote its values globally. Actors who prove effective ambassadors for the People’s Republic may see their careers rise, while those who test Chinese authorities can face negative consequences, even if they are stars.
“No matter how famous or important you are, nobody is safe from the Chinese Communist Party,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science specializing in Chinese studies at the University of Southern California.
The Chinese government wants to send the message that representing their country should take precedence above anything else, Rosen said, and that actors who find themselves in the crosshairs of the authorities will often “go overboard in praise of the Communist Party” in order to keep working.
Why has China built up its movie industry?
Over the past decade, China has focused on its home-grown film industry as part of its broader efforts to build up its creative industries overall. These efforts have proved immensely profitable: China is soon expected to surpass the U.S. and Canada as the world’s No. 1 film market, and a number of Chinese film companies have signed lucrative deals with Hollywood studios in recent years.
But investing in the state-sanctioned film industry is about more than Chinese economic growth, Rosen said. And the messaging of these movies is more important than their profitability. They want to tell a “China story,” he said.
Over the last decade or so, the Chinese government has put around $10 billion a year into “soft power” initiatives that promote the country’s culture and values abroad. Film is a key component.
“The freer the Chinese entertainment industry is to produce interesting content and to thrive economically, the greater the industry,” said Lindsay Conner, a partner at Manatt Entertainment who has represented major Chinese clients in the film industry. “At the same time, the government clearly wants to retain some control over the topics and themes over the way those are depicted.”
China’s decision to hand control of the film industry over to its Central Publicity Department in 2018 seemed to confirm that President Xi Jinping is deeply invested in controlling the narrative of his country’s films. Aynne Kokas, the author of “Hollywood: Made in China” and a senior faculty fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, said placing the film industry under the supervision of what is essentially a propaganda department is a means of maximizing “the number of ways that the Chinese government can share their narrative both domestically and internationally.”
Case in point: The 2017 Chinese patriotic film “Wolf Warrior II” features a Rambo-like character who saves a number of Chinese humanitarian doctors from rebels and Western mercenaries in a fictional African country. While it received negative reviews from many Western film critics for its nationalist undertones, it was China’s highest-grossing film of all time. The same year, the state-backed film “Founding of An Army” celebrated the founding of the Communist Party’s armed forces.
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Michael Gralapp, an American producer and entertainment recruiter who has also been an actor in a number of Chinese films, said that the government’s control over the film industry is readily apparent on set, where producers, writers and directors often debate whether certain decisions will jeopardize a film’s approval by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). Under China’s Film Industry Promotion Law, companies that produce films in China must file script outlines with SARFT before shooting. Films that look at topics considered sensitive by the government, such as military affairs and ethnic groups, must have their completed scripts examined for approval by SARFT.
“There’s a lot of talk around the set of, ‘Will we or won’t we get approved?'” said Gralapp. He said he once acted as American billionaire Warren Buffett in a movie called “Hello Mr. Billionaire,” where the assistant director voiced serious concerns over whether or not the word “f***” could be used. “SARFT is still run by a bunch of old men and they definitely rule the party line as far as what’s acceptable and what’s not,” Gralapp said.
How stars are used to project Chinese values
Film actors are a natural extension of China’s soft power. An oft-cited example is Jackie Chan, who has enjoyed popularity in the U.S. while growing increasingly vocal in his support of Beijing. Most recently, Chan told state-run CCTV that he hoped Hong Kong would return to peace soon after a spate of protests. “I feel pride in being Chinese wherever I go,” he said, adding that China’s flag “is respected everywhere around the world.”
But Americans don’t often pick up on these sort of comments if they’re not following the Asian press, Rosen said, as Chinese actors will often code-switch depending on their audience. “[Jackie Chan is] so patriotic,” he said. “But most Americans don’t know that, and… if you look at what Chinese actors say in China, and what they say abroad, they’re completely different.”
Even controversial comments that do draw attention, such as those made by Liu, are not likely to draw pushback from U.S. studios today, given the strength of the Chinese market. “Disney is not going to offend China — they’ve had so much invested there, with theme parks, etc., and their films,” said Rosen, who noted that Liu has not faced any career consequences in the U.S. for the recent controversy.
While actors like Chan and Liu enjoy support from the Chinese Communist Party, a few high-profile stars have gotten into trouble in recent years. In 2018, actress Fan Bingbing was put under house arrest after someone on social media revealed that she had evaded paying taxes to Chinese authorities. Bingbing, who is China’s highest-paid actress and is worth an estimated $100 million, disappeared from the public eye and later issued a public apology crediting the Communist Party for her success: “Without the great policies of the [Communist] Party and the country, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing,” she wrote on Weibo. Bingbing is now reportedly working on paying back taxes of well over $100 million to the Chinese government.
Such apologies are not unusual for actors who want to survive and maintain a career within the Chinese market — they often acquiesce to the requests of the Communist Party. “If you are going to live in China and be a star, you’ve got to do what China says,” Gralapp said. If a star as big as “Fan Bingbing isn’t safe,” he continued,”no one is safe.”
These sorts of crackdowns do have financial consequences for China though, and that could hinder its soft-power campaign. In 2008, the government took issue with a number of erotic scenes in Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” which was filmed in China and starred actress Wei Tang. Due to these concerns, Tang was banned from appearing on Chinese screens for three years — the sort of decision whose financial implications for studios “can’t be overstated,” Kokas said. Following Fan’s disappearance, many Chinese productions were put on hold.
Those moves can hurt China in perception overseas, as well as in establishing an overseas market for their films, Rosen said.
In fact, the two imperatives of the Chinese film industry — economic strength and nationalist values — are constantly in tension with one another, said Conner. “China does recognize the soft power that America’s entertainment industry exerts on the culture and thinking of audiences around the world, and would like to have a similar kind of influence,” said Conner. “To do that, China has to understand it has to grow its industry.” He said it would be fascinating to see how that tension plays out in the coming years.
But Rosen said that, more than anything, state officials care about preserving the party’s influence within China.
“First you need to win over public opinion within China — that’s why you control the media and that’s why you censor so much,” he said.