American culture and freedom of expression are the battleground of a new cold war.
China and Saudi Arabia have outsized influence in Hollywood today. Money from their repressive governments is influencing American culture, including our films, and thus our representation around the world. It is also leading to widespread censorship, against our cherished freedom of expression. America must regain the pen of our cultural narrative.
Culture, including film, is a valuable tool in the international relations theory of “soft power,” or the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. The film industry is a highly profitable one, valued at over $2 trillion in 2019 box office revenue alone, and it wields significant international influence.
I grew up as an American expatriate in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi citizens have a dichotomous attitude towards Americans: They disdain our economic influence, yet they yearn for our freedom of expression. They consume American films in spite of the rampant censorship in their Kingdom.
This attitude towards Americans is currently shared by China: Americans are a necessary evil for economic development, and pose an ideological threat to their dictatorship. However, China has intentionally circumvented Hollywood’s influence over their population by strategically producing propaganda. The Chinese government censors every film shown in their country, from the top of the production chain: They manipulate the representation of the United States itself—not only in their own films, but in ours.
American film companies increasingly cater to Chinese government ideology, including the American cultural icon Disney. In the credits of Disney’s Mulan, Disney gave special thanks to several government entities in Xinjiang, China, which operate internment camps that contain over a million members of the country’s Uyghur minority. Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr said, “Walt Disney would be disheartened to see how the company he founded deals with the foreign dictatorships of our day.”
This year, Chinese director Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland swept up the Best Film and Best Director categories at the Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards, and the Academy Awards. Chloe Zhao is the daughter of a Beijing steel magnate and People’s Liberation Army doctor, and two of her prior award-winning, American produced films (Songs My Brother Taught Me, The Rider) depict contemporary cowboys and Indians in the United States. The protagonists of the films are not traditional heroes; they struggle in criminal worlds only to give up on their dreams. In a similar vein, Nomadland is set in an American city called Empire, and tells the story of an impoverished nomad who searches for employment, in veiled criticism of one of the largest American companies in the world, Amazon. Zhao’s next project, the Disney/Marvel film, Eternals, depicts the reunion of an immortal race, after being in hiding for thousands of years, to protect Earth from the “Deviants.” According to these films, America is a world where you cannot fulfill your dreams; you can only fulfill Amazon—and to deviate from the norm will result in inevitable defeat.
How did this happen, and how can America regain our cultural narrative?
Money plays a significant role in American culture, a culture built upon a capitalist market economy that encourages competition and innovation. But the freedom of expression Americans fought for when we established the United States is paramount. The tension between these two priorities since 9/11 and subsequent economic recessions have led to short-sighted, profit-driven decision-making by American leadership, in both the private and public sectors.
The American-Saudi partnership has been fraught with controversy and contradiction since the 9/11 attacks, which culminated in a 2016 Congressional vote to allow 9/11 families to sue the country for its alleged links to the attackers. Yet in 2017, the Trump administration signed a $350 billion arms deal with the Saudi government. According to the U.S. Department of State, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is currently the United States’s largest foreign military sales customer and one of our largest trading partners in the Middle East.
The Kingdom is also taking notes from China. “They’re the new Chinese,” stated one Hollywood insider to Forbes in 2018. Following Saudi King Salman’s decision to lift a 35-year cinema ban, AMC Theaters declared intent to open up to 100 cinemas in Saudi Arabia by 2030. In 2020, the Kingdom invested about $500 million worth of shares in Disney. Penske Media (co-owner of the Hollywood Reporter) took a $200 million investment from the Saudis. Netflix announced an eight-picture deal they would finance through a Saudi production company. Like the Chinese, the Saudis have a strategy to buy their way into Hollywood, and also like China, the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM) administers censorship—screening for what it deems to be inappropriate content.
In 2019, Netflix pulled comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” episode on Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi after Saudi officials claimed that it violated the Kingdom’s cybercrime law. There is no evidence Netflix tried to challenge the ruling or asked Saudi Arabia to explain how the episode was a threat to public order.
The Saudi government’s brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 sent an anti-American message to the world: Do not stand up for freedom of expression. Brian Fogel’s film The Dissident meticulously documented the Saudi murder of Khashoggi, who was employed by the Washington Post. The Dissident was blacklisted in Hollywood. Fogel stated in an interview that “there was a unified front among the major global media companies, distributors, that they were not going to touch this film.”
“What I observed was that the desire for corporate profits have left the integrity of America’s film culture weakened,” said Thor Halvorssen, the founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, who financed The Dissident and served as a producer.
Meanwhile, China has steadily accumulated U.S. Treasury securities since 9/11. As of February 2021, China owns $1.104 trillion, or about 4%, of the $28 trillion U.S. national debt, which is more than any other foreign country except Japan. It is also the world’s largest country by population, and is predicted to overtake the U.S. as the top box office market. A 2013 Rolling Stone article observed: “The hardball negotiators of Hollywood were willing to roll over, in terms of finance and even content, in return for access to the world’s largest overseas moviegoing audience.”
Disney is one of the biggest winners in China: The proud owner of Marvel Studios sat on more than $1 billion from the country’s box office in 2019. The version of Iron Man 3 released in China featured added footage with Chinese product placements and Chinese characters saving Iron Man. Marvel’s 2016 superhero film Dr. Strange changed the appearance of a major Tibetan character for fear of jeopardizing the movie’s success in China. American film studios, including Disney, also invite Chinese government regulators on film sets to advise “on how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires.”
Prioritizing profit over freedom of expression has diluted the perception of American culture and weakened our international influence. As Frances Stonor Saunders detailed in her book, The Cultural Cold War, the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom during the Cold War were instruments of American culture, and cultural efforts to win hearts and minds continue to be relevant today. However, a key difference between the Cultural Cold War of the mid-20th century versus today is the ability of other governments to finance cultural influence. The Russian Soviet Union could not compete with the American entertainment industry; China can.
The Chinese government understands that culture stands upstream from policy and from politics, impacting the population. According to Matthias Niedenführ, vice director of the China Center in Tübingen, Germany, Chinese government censors do not want to see Chinese people portrayed as villains, and they do not want to see American powers portrayed as heroes. Hollywood is “often gleefully willing to speak truth to American political power” yet it takes the opposite approach to the Chinese government, which monitors their population with drones, AI-powered CCTV cameras, and systemic censorship.
The Chinese government wants to maintain a relationship with Hollywood, which remains the most potent force for global storytelling—a power their government envies. The free speech nonprofit PEN America issued a 94-page report in 2020 titled, “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing: The US Film Industry and Chinese Government Influence,” which recommends the following:
- Hollywood studios insist that any version of a film adapted or censored for the Chinese market does not become the default version issued for U.S. and global release.
- Hollywood studios commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by government regulators for their films.
- Every American filmmaking industry institution—such as the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, the Big Five studios, the Motion Picture Association, film schools, and others—advance their efforts to bring public attention to this phenomenon and to create opportunities for Hollywood insiders to discuss the issue honestly and transparently.
- Journalists and the media discuss the issue, raising awareness in the general public.
- The American government introduces legislation to combat Chinese and/or foreign government influence in American film. Potential legislation on the issue, such as the proposed “Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, Protecting Talkies Act,” or SCRIPT Act would prohibit the U.S. Defense Department from cooperating with any film studio that edits or alters their movies for screening in China, and require studios seeking such cooperation to enter into a written agreement with the U.S. government not to comply with Chinese government censorship for the film.
The report concludes American decision-makers have a moral imperative to stand for freedom of expression, to resist the gradual encroachment of any government that attempts to dictate what stories may be told. Journalists covering Hollywood ought to be writing about this, and those who value freedom of expression should pay attention to its muzzling.
As Americans, we have a responsibility for the evolution of our culture and representation in the world. We cannot allow the liberty we fought for when we established the United States of America to be sold: The freedom of expression is more valuable than money.