China Is the Key to Hollywood—and Joe Biden

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As expected, Hollywood is lining up to support Joe Biden with lavish fundraisers and high-profile endorsements. According to Variety, Biden’s campaign is tapping a “network of donors and fundraisers who raised millions for the Obama-Biden ticket.” Last month, film producer and co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, raised $6 million for the Biden campaign at a virtual fundraiser.

According to media reports, Katzenberg, who is also the founder of Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform, has been one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific donors and bundlers, raising millions in recent cycles for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s presidential race. He also gave seven-figure sums to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC that backed Obama in 2012, Clinton in 2016, and Biden today. A few months ago, Katzenberg gave $100,000 to the super PAC.

Hollywood producers and studio executives have been among Biden’s biggest supporters. In addition to Katzenberg, James Costos, a former HBO executive who served as Ambassador to Spain during the Obama administration, and Costos’s domestic partner, Michael Smith, the official decorator for the White House during the first Obama term, hosted a major fundraising event for Biden in their Los Angeles home in May, along with several co-hosts from the movie industry, including filmmaker Rob Reiner. Producers and other industry leaders who seem especially eager to support Biden include producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, producer Eric Ortner, Tennis Channel president Ken Solomon, and Rufus Gifford and his “husband,” Stephen DeVincent.

Gifford, who developed and produced family comedies including Garfield and Daddy Day Care, moved from Hollywood to politics and served as one of Barack Obama’s most important fundraisers. In fact, Obama was so grateful to Gifford for his fundraising abilities that he made him the U. S. Ambassador to Denmark—one of seven openly gay ambassadors appointed by Obama. LA Weekly published a story on Gifford’s remarkable fundraising ability entitled, “Obama’s Gay Gold Mine.” In a media interview, Gifford explained why he was drawn to Democratic politics: “Being gay makes you inherently political. You see what’s right and what’s wrong and you need to do something about it.” Recognizing the value Gifford could bring to his own campaign, Biden recently announced that he has hired Gifford as his deputy campaign manager focused on finance and policy.

 

Hollywood historian Steven Ross mirrors Gifford’s ideas on Democratic party politics in his book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, by pointing out that the emotional requirements of acting are conducive to progressive politics: “The overwhelmingly liberal orientation of actors can be partially understood as a byproduct of the demands of their craft. Playing a variety of characters, many of whom they did not necessarily like, fostered a sense of empathy and ability to understand issues and people outside their personal experience.”

Although a “greater capacity for empathy” may explain the liberal orientation of movie star supporters of liberal policies, some of the biggest donations to Biden are from the industry leaders—the filmmakers and producers—not the actors. For the Hollywood moguls, the decision to support Biden over President Trump appears much more transactional. Industry leaders know that Biden is good for the movie business because he has already shown a willingness to help the industry expand its China market. In 2012, Biden led negotiations to increase China’s film quota with Xi Jinping, who was then vice president of China. One of the conditions of the expansion into China was a willingness to accommodate the demands of the Communist Party of China for films that portray China in a favorable light. And it is clear that Biden—and the major studio executives—have been more than willing to provide the kind of propaganda the Communist Party in China has demanded.

While it may seem hyperbolic to claim that Biden’s Hollywood deal provides propaganda for the Communist Party, we are not the first to make this observation. In a 2019 article for The Atlantic, Boston College Professor Martha Bayles writes: “Beijing moves to co-opt the American film industry as it seeks to penetrate the world’s largest market… Beijing has been using Hollywood’s insatiable need for investment, and its vaulting ambition to reach a potential audience of 1.4 billion people, to draw it into China’s orbit.” Recognizing the cultural and geopolitical power of film better than the American film industry, China’s current president, Xi, has decreed that every film released in China must be vetted not only by the Central Propaganda Department but also by the Ministry of State Security, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the Ministry of Public Security, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other bureaucratic entities.

Because of the lucrative market, few have complained about China’s increasingly heavy-handed censorship. Biden knows this. And although Hollywood has had to deal with censorship in other countries for about 100 years, most markets for Hollywood films are in democratic countries where the film classification boards had specific and reasonable rules. But, Bayles writes, “China has broken this mold… China has led Hollywood down the path of submission to a state censorship apparatus whose standards are as murky and unpredictable as those of most democratic countries are clear and consistent.” While Hollywood has focused on the financially lucrative market in the Communist country, China sees profit as a secondary goal. The more important goal for China is to expand Chinese cultural influence around the world. China understands better than most Americans that “politics is downstream from culture.” This is why China is willing to use the expertise of American filmmakers to provide propaganda for its people. As Bayles points out, the kind of propaganda China wants is “not cute pandas and white-whiskered sages under blossoming plum trees. I mean bloody, ultra-violent action flicks, in which heroic righteous Chinese soldiers kick some serious ass, including cowardly, decadent American ass, in exotic foreign places that are clearly in need of Xi Jinping Thought.”

Bayles points to the Chinese film Wolf Warrior 2 as an example of Communist film propaganda: “It is a nonstop tsunami of gun battles, massive explosions, wrenching hand-to-hand combat, and a spectacular tank chase which hammers away at a single message: China is bringing security, prosperity and modern health care to Africa, while the United States is bringing only misery. The film broke all box office records in China and is still, at $5.6 billion, its highest grossing film ever.” The action in the film was choreographed by Hollywood actor, stuntman, and director Sam Hargrave, the stunt coordinator for several films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Despite the lucrative market, China demands (with Biden’s approval) that any and all American films allowed into their country must project an image of China as a stable society of happy and successful people. American films are required to present a picture of China as a society without dissent or dissenters. For example, the movie Top Gun: Maverick—a sequel financed in part by the Chinese firm Tencent—omitted the Japanese and Taiwanese flags from Tom Cruise’s jacket.

Sometimes, the demands by the Communist Party appear capricious and unrelated to propaganda purposes. For example, Hollywood Reporter announced that the Disney film Christopher Robin would not get a China release because the country does not allow images of Winnie the Pooh in the country. The Communists began blocking pictures of Winnie the Pooh on social media because the character has become a symbol of the resistance in China… Bloggers have drawn comparisons between the pudgy bear and Xi Jinping.”

The 2012 remake of the classic war movie Red Dawn originally focused on China as the evil antagonist. And, most of the filming was completed when it was decided by American movie executives that the Chinese market was too important. The movie had cast the entire nation as villains. Instead, “all the Chinese flags in the movie were digitally changed to North Korean insignias, and the movie was reworked to be a story of invasion from a country that has absolutely no impact on box office sales for Western films.” Later that same year, the remake of Total Recall changed the names of two large communities of the future, which were connected by an enormous elevator know originally as the China Fall. Studio executives changed the names because they felt China would not appreciate being cast as the “Other” of the future, nor was it believed that the idea of associating a fall with China would be well-received in their market. Likewise, Looper focuses on the beauty of Shanghai—a city that is presented as a bright, clean metropolis which stands in direct contrast to the dystopian American city, Kansas City, where the main events of the movie take place. The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid moves all of the action to a Chinese setting—even though Karate is in no way connected to China—and the name for the film in China was Kung Fu Dream. The Chinese cut of the James Bond film Skyfall removed all scenes where Bond defeats men of Chinese origin. A scene in which Bond kills a Chinese security guard in Shanghai was omitted, as were references to prostitution in Macau. Subtitles were changed to hide references to torture at the hands of the Chinese security forces. Similar scenes are missing from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Homosexuality is not allowed to be referenced or portrayed in any American film marketed to a Chinese audience. Other than Quentin Tarantino who refused to allow Party apparatchiks to censor his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, few Hollywood producers and filmmakers are willing to give up the potential box office bonanza that would be lost without the lucrative China market.

While Joe Biden certainly cannot be blamed for the censorship by China, the financial incentive to help Hollywood expand the movie industry into the lucrative Chinese market has also expanded Beijing’s ability to spread its propaganda that the United States is a declining superpower in comparison with the people’s paradise. A Biden presidency would likely continue to acquiesce to China’s demands for films that conform to the Communist Party’s ideology. China’s Communist leaders know—as most conservatives know—that “politics is downstream from culture.” Biden has been complicit in helping the Communist Party of China shape the culture according to Communist values and beliefs. It is likely that this influence on our media will continue to expand here in our own country if Biden is elected president.

Photo credit: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Anne Hendershott

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Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

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