Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
HOLLYWOOD — The Federalist Papers may be out, but “Captain America” is in.
China’s top education authorities have recently launched a campaign to curb the teaching of “Western values” in universities through primary texts that promote individual liberty, rule of law, an independent civil society and distrust of political authority. Yet Chinese audiences flock unbothered to such Hollywood films as “Captain America,” “Transformers, “Hunger Games” or “Spider Man” which, in their essential message, impart, even if only incidentally, the very Western values censorious authorities are trying to purge from the official curriculum.
Can it be lost on these Communist Party stalwarts that the subversive memes of individual liberty, self-organized “civil society” groups and anti-authoritarianism are spread far more by Hollywood movies than scholarly texts? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a blockbuster film is surely worth quite a few textbooks. And so are all the American TV shows so popular in China, from “House of Cards” to “NCIS” and the legal drama “The Good Wife.”
Those who remember the Cultural Revolution and the ubiquitous propaganda that built-up Mao’s cult of personality certainly know that whoever controls the narrative sways the society. As Plato noted long ago, “those who tell the stories rule society.”
But don’t they also grasp that ordinary middle class moviegoers or TV viewers in a mass society buy into a narrative not so much by a considered weighing of ideas as on what image they identify with emotionally and want to be associated with? Isn’t that why Brad Pitt’s visage can be seen on billboards all around Shanghai selling Cadillacs?
“Brad Pitt’s visage can be seen on billboards all around Shanghai selling Cadillacs.”
A person’s worldview is constructed more emotionally than rationally by what works for them metaphorically. And metaphor is the métier of movies. Images are the currency of their realm. Images rule dreams and dreams rule actions.
Just as the Silicon Valley libertarian ideology of individual empowerment is encoded in social media products like YouTube, so, too, the very message China’s authorities worry about — the individual or non-government “civil society” groups righteously standing up to authority and power — is embedded in the Hollywood medium going back to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
While the Federalist Papers address the division of powers, an independent judiciary and popular elections, at least they respect political authority (Thomas Jefferson was an admirer of Confucius). But, for Hollywood, making fun of political authority, or fighting against it, is a time-honored, audience-pleasing trope.
If you emerge from a Beijing cinema into the usual toxic haze and read the People’s Daily reports about peasants in some small village once again losing their land to corrupt officials, how else can you interpret “Avatar” than as a call for people to stand up to the greed of rapacious state-backed developers who are ruining the environment?
Often, the most subversive message is incidental. Back in the early 1960s when a group of Hollywood executives visited Jakarta, then Indonesian President Sukarno told them, “I see you as political radicals and revolutionaries who have greatly hastened political change in the East.” He went on to say what he meant in those days when East Asia was largely undeveloped:
“What the Orient sees in a Hollywood movie is a world in which ordinary people have cars and electric stoves and refrigerators. So the Oriental regards himself as an ordinary person who has been deprived of the ordinary person’s birthright.”
Similarly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali women’s rights activist known for her outspokenness against political Islam, traces one early epiphany in her teenage years to a B Hollywood movie — “Secret Admirer”— she saw in a Nairobi cinema with her sister, sneaking out when they were supposed to be studying the Quran. For the first time, she saw a boy and a girl kiss on screen, something entirely outside of her life experience in her Muslim clan.
As the media sociologist Manuel Castells has noted, venturing into another reality through movies is not “cost free.” Glimpsing an alternative reality can either prompt innovation — “I want to live that way” — or provoke reaction — “that way of living is dangerous and a threat to my way of life.” Surely, this insight accounts for the strange and elusive mixture of love and loathing American mass culture evokes around the world.
In this respect, films are a powerful influence. However waning American might is in other respects, and however influential other film industries are becoming, the attractive soft-power of Hollywood movies still reigns globally (with the exception of India’s Bollywood).
In fact, Hollywood is going even more global in order to thrive — in no small part because cable and TV are displacing its home audience at the box office. China is already Hollywood’s second largest market after the United States, and it’s projected to become the largest market by 2020.
“It used to be that as much as 50 percent of the total box office for a film would come from the U.S. and Canada, but it’s not the case anymore,” Stan Rosen, an expert in Chinese politics and the relationship between Hollywood and China, told USC News. “It’s gone down to 30 or 35 percent. Now, a blockbuster film will make as much as 70 percent of its return outside of North America.”
China jumped ahead of Japan as the second-largest film market after North America in 2012. In 2013, China’s box office receipts tallied $3.6 billion — a 27 percent increase over the previous year. Then in 2014 China’s box office sales hit $4.8 billion. He estimates that China will overtake North America as the top movie market in the next 10 years.
Indeed, the entertainment world as a whole is becoming more globally integrated. America’s second largest theater chain, AMC, is owned by a Chinese company.
Disney is no longer the quintessential image factory of Mainstreet America, but a global company that banks on China for its impressive revenues, not only from films like “Frozen” but from theme parks such as the one it will be opening soon in Shanghai.
The same is true for the other American media giants from Universal to Time Warner and Comcast.
Thanks to the vastly improved and ever more powerful computer tools available at much cheaper cost, even smaller, independent filmmakers are going global, pulling together talent and technical expertise from around the world with the ultimate aim of achieving international marketability. One good example is the sci-fi short “ATROPA” by American filmmaker Eli Sasich, who used storyboard and concept artists from across Europe and Canada with visual effects done in Germany, eventually linking up with New Zealand-based production companies, Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop, working to turn the short into a feature film that would appeal to audiences everywhere — including China.
For now, China limits foreign film imports to 34 annually — of those, 14 must be either IMAX or 3-D — with endless possibilities for exposure if a film is produced in conjunction with a Chinese partner. China builds out an astonishing 13 new movie theaters a day.
This ever more tightly tethered relationship of global entertainment operates in a global public square that trade, the planetary reach of the media and the spread of technology have created. It is in this new space of power where images compete and ideas are contested; it is where hearts and minds are won or lost and legitimacy is established. It is a space both of friction and fusion where the cosmopolitan commons of the 21st century will be built — or not.
“The more developed China becomes, the more open it will be. It is impossible for China to shut the door that has already been opened.”
China’s integration into this global public square has been part and parcel of its modernization. As President Xi Jinping himself acknowledges, “The more developed China becomes, the more open it will be. It is impossible for China to shut the door that has already been opened.”
Despite this pledge from the top, will China’s ideological watchdogs turn their focus sooner or later to further limiting Western films and TV shows as well as textbooks? Already, “The Big Bang Theory” has been curbed, and gnomes in China’s relevant ministries are also insisting on script rewrites in co-production deals.
China has now climbed to the top ranks of the global economy. Its government has delivered for its people over the last 30 years, lifting hundreds of millions from poverty. It has a 4,000 year-old continuous civilization that has outlived most of the ancient empires in the West and elsewhere. Surely a civilization with such a proven capacity to endure can confidently absorb what it wants from the modern West and leave the rest.
But if President Xi sincerely means that China cannot shut the door to the world, then he ought not try to control what information people are exposed to — whether in a university textbook, a movie screen or in a Youku video. You cannot after all “seek truth from facts” if the authorities censor the reality of today’s global interdependence and cross-pollinating flows of information.
The Cultural Revolution days of an autarkic closed information loop when the Communist Party could dictate a narrative for an isolated and impoverished society are over for China. To believe otherwise is to undermine the very links to the rest of the world that have enabled China to become the ever-more prospering world power it is today.
Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of The WorldPost. Mike Medavoy is an Oscar nominated producer of such films as “Silence of the Lambs,” “The Terminator” and “Black Swan.” They are co-authors of “American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.”