The story Erich Schwartzel tells in Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy reaches a tipping point in early 2020, just after Disney hosts a gala Los Angeles premiere for its live action remake of their hit 1998 animated feature Mulan. The movie was supposed to be a triumphant affirmation of its years-long policy of wooing Chinese moviegoers and their government, by telling a well-loved Chinese story not just to the studio’s global market but to China itself, in the form of a production painstakingly made in collaboration with China, shot on location, and with Chinese talent.
It wouldn’t turn out that way. First of all, Disney was forced to postpone the release of the film when the COVID-19 outbreak swept across the globe from its origin – ironically – in China. In the end, they’d release it on their Disney+ streaming service later that September, after it became obvious that two weeks of lockdowns were going to stretch sporadically over two long years.
Second, the market for Mulan in China turned out to be a lot softer than Disney had imagined. “By 2020, Chinese studios were making movies about Chinese heroes, leaving little need among some moviegoers for a Western version of their story,” Schwartzel writes. “By 2020, a steady diet of better Chinese movies had left fans of the original emboldened to criticize its remake … After once looking like the Chinese box-office hope of 2020, Mulan made a paltry $41 million.”
But the sharpest blow was when a Washington Post reporter scrutinized the film’s credits and noticed that Disney had shot the film in the Xinjiang region, where the government of Xi Jinping had been involved in the systematic oppression of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, a human rights abuse that had been decried all over the world, describing China’s policy as a genocide.
“It was among the most fraught political morasses Disney could have found itself in, at a time when its dependence on the Chinese consumer was higher than ever,” notes Schwartzel. Any attempt to downplay or minimize their collaboration with the regime played badly, and the studio couldn’t apologize for fear of inviting retribution from the Chinese government for acknowledging that the Uighur policy was an assault on human rights.
Both fans and critics of Disney know the story of Song of the South, the now-infamous 1946 Disney feature based on the Uncle Remus stories. It was a hit. I remember seeing it screened on television when I was a boy, but criticism of its postbellum setting and stereotypes of African-American characters have prohibited Disney from showing or reissuing it for at least a generation. If you’re even old enough to remember the film, you can’t help but regard Disney’s wooing of the Chinese market and its relationship with the country’s government as a tar baby – a sticky trap set for one of the story’s characters, harder to escape the more you tried.
Schwartzel’s book tells the story of how Hollywood went to China hoping to get some of the money that its emerging urban working and middle-classes had been earning since the country had transformed itself into a unique market economy and manufacturing powerhouse under Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping.
Disney had been among the studios most eager to get a share of that market, not just for its movies and TV shows but its theme parks. Until Mulan, it seemed that they’d played a very successful game with China’s communist government, but ultimately it didn’t look like a triumph. Robert Iger, the Disney chairman who had led their China market strategy, had imagined that he’d be rewarded by the new Biden administration with a role as ambassador to China. – “The man who had led the Magic Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom was the best candidate to represent America in Beijing” is how Schwartzel sums up the sales job made by Iger and his supporters.
But a few months into 2020, this didn’t seem so wise: “Disney now faced the political and moral ramifications of having funneled billions of dollars and priceless legitimacy into the country as Uighurs were forced into concentration camps.”
Just 20 years ago, when I was reviewing movies for a free daily newspaper, China was producing a series of artful, intelligent feature films under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, successors to Deng Xiaoping. Directors from the country’s “Fifth Generation” like Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) had taken their films to acclaim at international film festivals. I was particularly impressed with Platform, a 2000 feature by Zia Zhangke, about a group of young actors touring the country’s poorer provinces after the Cultural Revolution.
But as esteemed as these directors, their stars and their films had become around the globe, it was common knowledge that they were nearly impossible to see in China itself, thanks to the country’s strict censorship and control of media, (a regime that was still porous, thanks to the black market in pirate video that flourished there, a by-product of the country’s flagrant disregard for international copyright treaties). They were happy to court international prestige with nuanced stories that implied criticism of the country’s history, but these stories were discouraged in China itself under Deng, Jiang and Hu, and would be banished altogether when Xi turned out to be more Mao than Deng once he assumed power.
More typical of a film seen in China these days is The Mystery of the Dragon Seal: Journey to China (2019), starring Hong Kong action superstar Jackie Chan and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger – a Russian-Chinese co-production. Or Air Strike (2018), a story about an American Air Force officer training Chinese pilots to fight the Japanese air force during World War Two, which starred Bruce Willis and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody. They’re the dirty secrets hiding in the filmographies of many actors and directors, like the TV commercials they might have made in Japan in the 80s.
If you haven’t heard of these films, it’s because they were made for Chinese audiences – “main melody” pictures produced to reinforce current government policies and messages internally, or to serve as propaganda on satellite channels China offers in developing markets in Africa, broadcast through its cheap, subsidized dish network, StarTimes.
Hollywood had gone into China with confident predictions that it was an exercise of “soft power” – and that access to American stories would help to promote democracy and a stiffening of resistance to the top-down control of the Communist Party of China. What ended up happening was more like the “technology transfers” that had happened in so many other industries that dealt with China, where access to knowledge and blueprints provided by the West had been simply appropriated by the country and its quick learners.
On the way there, Schwartzel recounts how increasing reliance on Chinese markets and money created situations where the regime had been able to make demands on studios to re-edit films, alter scripts or make casting decisions to put China in the best light and punish talent that had been outspoken in its criticism of the regime. Casualties included actor Richard Gere, whose support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama has effectively blacklisted the star from everything but independent productions.
The American model, expressed in its cinema for decades – of democracy and individual liberty – hadn’t turned out to be as attractive in China, with its long history of collectivism, or in Chinese markets like Africa, where Chinese infrastructure investment (part of its Belt and Road Initiative) has come with the cultural exports China refined under Hollywood tutelage. These products are especially attractive to African bureaucrats like Ezekiel Mutua, the deceptively powerful head of Kenya’s Film Classification Board.
“We don’t want to keep imbibing Western culture, homosexual films, violent films, as a way of life,” Mutua told Schwartzel. To that end, Mutua has banned Rafiki, an award-winning Kenyan film about a lesbian relationship, from airing in the country – much like those Chinese films I was reviewing twenty years ago – and has banned kids’ cartoons like Hey Arnold! and Loud House for being “’laced with retrogressive and bizarre messages’ that could turn kids gay.” It’s a sentiment echoed outside Africa by, for instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, China’s most reliable supporter in Europe. “Strong families contribute to strong communities contribute to strong nations. That, China has done very well,” as Mutua told Schwartzel.
While there’s criticism that China’s expansion into Africa is little more than colonialism without the imported bureaucracy or governor’s mansion, and predictions that China is bringing on a debt crisis that could sabotage its plans, it’s also undeniable that the Chinese model of strict social control married to a global market economy is attractive not just to African bureaucrats but to westerners right and left who not-so-secretly long for mechanisms to suppress dissent at home. Like Orbán, or Canada’s own Justin Trudeau, who said the quiet part out loud and admitted to a “level of admiration I actually have for China because of their basic dictatorship” nearly a decade ago.
Schwartzel concludes his book by saying that “we are about to watch the final act in a classic tale,” where “the ingénue grasps for the leading role.” For those of us who remember when conventional wisdom had Japan dominating Hollywood and Wall Street, the story might have many more acts, but the crucial question right now is how much we value liberty despite how much we might regret many of its expressions – a crisis of confidence that was never supposed to happen when we went to China to sell movies.