China’s Starring Role in Hollywood

What does it take to make a Hollywood blockbuster? Movie stars? A great script? How about approval from the Chinese government? In this episode, two guests explore the surprising role of Chinese censorship and oversight in the production of U.S. films and ask what’s at stake as their presence increases.

January 6, 2021 — 37:11 min
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Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Aynne Kokas

Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

James Tager

Deputy Director, Free Expression Research and Policy, PEN America

Show Notes

Since 1997, China has leveraged its market to exert growing influence over exported U.S. films, censoring content that could cast China in a negative light and demanding the addition of scenes that glorify the country. Now, as China’s box office overtakes North America’s as the largest in the world, Hollywood has transitioned from accepting this censorship to preemptively creating films and scenes that will please Chinese censors. In this episode, two expert guests examine what China hopes to gain from this strategy and what the implications are for the world’s premier storytelling venue as it accedes to the wishes of an authoritarian government.


CFR Resources


Media Censorship in China,” Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu


China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang,” Lindsay Maizland

Read More


Made In Hollywood, Censored by Beijing,” PEN America 


How China is Taking Control of Hollywood,” Heritage Foundation


Looks like the new ‘Top Gun’ bows to China’s communist party by censoring Maverick’s jacket,” Vanity Fair


Mulan’ is a movie about how much Hollywood needs China,” Washington Post


Hollywood Made in China,” Diplomat


The China box office has surpassed North America’s as the biggest in the world this year with $2 billion,” Business Insider


Text of Disney's Response to "Mulan" ControversyPosted to Twitter by Iain Duncan Smith, MP.


Watch and Listen


China’s Influence On Hollywood Is Growing, Changing The Films You See,” TODAY


China’s Uighurs, With Gulchehra Hoja,” The President’s Inbox




What does it take to make a hit in Hollywood? An a-list actress? A tried-and-true superhero franchise? How about... the blessing of the People’s Republic of China.

For years now, Hollywood has been straining to make sure its films don’t offend Chinese censors. Without their approval, studios can’t gain access to China’s massive box office. 

Pleasing Chinese censors can mean adding scenes that glorify the country, but it can also mean leaving things out, particularly anything that calls attention to human rights abuses. The financial pressures to do so have gotten so intense that in many cases American filmmakers are pre-empting censorship altogether, and designing their films to pass muster from the first draft.

I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters, today, China in the director’s chair. 

SIERRA: So, what does China have to do with Hollywood?

James TAGER: So this is a particularly important year for the China-Hollywood relationship because this is the year that the Chinese box office is expected to surpass the American box office as the most important box office in the world. 

This is James Tager. He is Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, and the author of the PEN America report, Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing. 

TAGER: Now, to get access to that box office, any movie studio, and this includes Hollywood, has to go through a regulatory process set up by Beijing, set up by the Chinese government. The issue is that this regulatory process includes censorship, that compliance with China's censorship model is a prerequisite to entering the Chinese market. So what we've seen increasingly is Hollywood studios, firstly, complying with the censorship and editing or altering or removing content that Chinese censors object to. But increasingly, we're seeing a sort of more proactive compliance, an anticipatory compliance and a self censorship, basically removing things that studios even suspect will upset the Chinese censor. And beyond that sort of working more actively with Chinese censors and Chinese government officials to include portrayals of China or to include portrayals that the Chinese government particularly likes within their movies.

In many cases altered content only affects the versions that are sent to theaters in China. But in other cases these changes are included in the global release too, meaning that American audiences, and audiences all over the world, are sometimes watching propaganda without even knowing it. It’s shocking when you think about it for a second, and seems to undermine a lot of what Hollywood stands for. So...why are they doing it? 

TAGER: Hollywood studios, like any other foreign studios, in this situation, really have significant economic imperatives to cooperate with this Chinese model of censorship in order to get into the country. And this is perhaps most pronounced when we look at Hollywood's biggest movies, the blockbusters, the movies that everyone sees, you know, movies like Iron Man 3, where Chinese censors were actually invited to the set to kind of see what was going on.

Iron Man 3 4:00 (Movie Scene)

Released way back in 2013, Iron Man 3 grossed $1.2 billion worldwide. Of that, it made $409 million domestically, and $121 million in China. That’s a huge chunk of change. And the proportion of profits coming from China continues to grow. 

TAGER: There is a quota system that is in place, where the Chinese government will allow up to 34 movies from outside the country. Technically, they can bend the rules on this a little bit, but usually the number is 34. Many of these spots are obtained by Hollywood Studios with their biggest blockbusters and access or lack thereof to the Chinese market for these big big movies can literally make or break the profitability of a certain Hollywood movie. 

In 2019, before the pandemic caused chaos in the film industry, global box office sales were worth roughly $42.5 billion. Of this, the U.S. box office accounted for $11.4 billion, and China’s accounted for $9 billion. While the U.S. was still slightly ahead, its take had fallen from 2018, whereas China’s had continued a long trend of growth. The pandemic has made it difficult to measure things accurately, but many think that China’s market either already has, or will very soon surpass that of the U.S., and that the trend will only become more pronounced with time. 

And, regardless, China has already become essential to Hollywood’s bottom line, especially when it comes to domestic flops. Consider the 2016 film Warcraft, based on the video game. 

Warcraft 3:20 (Movie Scene) 

It was reported that just to break even, the film needed to gross $400 million world wide. But in the U.S. it got panned and only brought in $46.7 million. Not to fear, China to the rescue! Because of the popularity of the video game there, it had the widest release of any film up to that point, and pushed profits into the green with a final total of $422 million. 

TAGER: When it comes to access to the Chinese market, the gatekeepers are government officials that have a political agenda, there's a stick and a carrot, right? The stick is if we don't like your movie it won't enter. And in fact, it's even more than that. It's if we don't like your movie, and we think it actively sort of insults China or insults the Chinese government, we may punish your other movies. We may not let your other movies in, we may punish the studio more broadly, we may punish the people who worked on the project more broadly. And that really encourages a climate of self-censorship among Hollywood professionals who don't want to face political ramifications. But there's also the carrot. If you sort of play ball, you may get more favorable release dates, you may get better terms for advertising campaigns for the movie within the country, and you may receive, sort of, the encouragement of the powers that be that want your movie to succeed within China. And so between that carrot and the stick, studios really have significant incentives to play ball with the Chinese censor.

This carrot and stick tactic works, even though it is hard to verify with studios. And Hollywood does have a lot to worry about.  The list of movies banned in China is long, and the reasons for the bans are wide-ranging. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was banned due to images of ghosts. Call Me By Your Name was banned for its portrayal of gay characters. And while it was not stated explicitly, many suspect that the 2018 film Christopher Robin was banned because the image of Winnie the Pooh has been used on Chinese social media to mock Xi Jinping.

The carrot and stick have worked so well that at this point Hollywood is dedicating a lot of resources to keeping its relationship with China humming along. But it wasn’t always that way. And you have to wonder, how did it start?

Aynne KOKAS: So, film is foundational to the Chinese nation. 1949, the year of the founding of the People's Republic of China, was also the year of the founding of the Beijing Film Studios, which at the very front gate, up until very recently had statues of a farmer, a worker, and a soldier, these kind of emblematic parts of the Chinese nation. 

Hi, my name is Aynne Kokas. And I'm an associate professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. And I'm a senior faculty fellow at the Miller Center for Public Affairs.

So since the beginning of China's founding film has been central, and we've seen all the way through the recent years, where films like The Founding of the Republic, The Founding of the Party, the Founding of the Army, have been releases, supported by the party used for the purpose of of celebrating the growth and the development of the PRC.

SIERRA: So I know, this is a - a big question. But what is the timeline of the Hollywood/China relationship? Can you give us some of the big milestones?

KOKAS: I think that we can think about a couple of different key milestones. So there was the growth of the fifth generation of filmmakers. So this was kind of in the 1980s, the first time when US filmmakers and US studios started to take notice of Chinese filmmakers. We see people like Zhang Yimou, coming out of the fifth generation filmmakers,  you guys may know Zhang Yimou, from, from choreographing the 2008, Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. 

NBC Sports: 0:40 “We’re about to see what happens when an artist gets nearly unlimited resources. It’s almost a cinematic presentation playing out in real-time.”

But he started off as a filmmaker who made kind of art films within the Chinese studio system in the 80s. Then we fast forward to 1997, where there's the Hong Kong handover from the UK to China. And this is a significant moment in the relationship between China and Hollywood, in the sense that we saw previously a really robust Hong Kong film industry, and then a shift from Hong Kong to the mainland. 

1997 is important for a number of reasons. As the Hong Kong handover took place, China also began to muscle for control over how foreign movies portrayed their country and its government. 

TAGER: This was the year when three movies, all from significant studios, all came out that criticize aspects of China's government. Two of them were on on Tibet, you had “Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet”, and you had a movie called “Red Corner” which not only starred Richard Gere, who was kind of a Tibet activist and of course, still is, but already was then, but also criticizing China's criminal justice system. The Chinese government responded by saying that not only would these movies never show in China, but by saying that the people who worked on them and the production studios would be punished for making them, basically putting them on an economic blacklist. In 1997, the size of the Chinese box office was kind of the size of the Peruvian box office, it was not a massive economic hit that the studios were taking. But it was when the studios were sort of put on notice that the Chinese government would go beyond just not letting your movie show in their theaters if they didn't like it, that they’d take a much more aggressive retaliatory pose. 


KOKAS: Now, where this really starts to get going is in 2001, with China's accession into the World Trade Organization, because this creates some requirements for opening up the Chinese film industry for other global box offices. So this gets really interesting in 2012, when the US and China sign a film agreement, which allows big budget films to enter the Chinese market, and there to be a 34 film floor. Now in 2017, with the Trump administration, this all expired. And basically, there are no rules anymore about how any of this happens as China's market gets bigger, potentially than the US market. 

SIERRA: What would you say to a studio that maybe leaned on the idea that they aren't accepting Chinese censorship, they're just trying to be more culturally sensitive and inclusive.

KOKAS: You know, if this is really a question of representation, show me a growth in the number of Asian-American directors and producers and leads in studio films, a growth in women, a growth in, people of color, a growth in LGBTQ folks taking leadership roles, and document that. And then I can believe what you're saying.

TAGER: We know that Hollywood does have a history of racist stereotypes, lack of representation, lack of inclusion, and efforts to increase that representation and inclusion are things that we applaud. The Chinese censor does not necessarily want thoughtful three dimensional depictions of Chinese characters. What they want is heroic self-aggrandizing depictions of Chinese characters and -

SIERRA: Doctors saving Tony Stark type thing?

TAGER: Yeah! That is a great and literal and specific example that actually happened. To those who don't know what we’re referring to, the movie “Iron Man 3”, the company inserted Chinese-only scenes into the film that showed in China where all of a sudden, a series of Chinese doctors save Tony Stark's life. 

Iron Man 3 2:27 (Movie Scene)

TAGER: And that's an example of sort of how, how proactively studios may respond to Chinese pressure to kind of create more friendly content in the eyes of the Chinese government. 

SIERRA: Can you tell me a little bit about the Chinese government in general because I feel like I should probably know that while analyzing why their involvement in Hollywood even matters.

KOKAS: Something that's important to know is that regulation of the film industry comes underneath something called the State Council, which is China's highest governing body, and the role of the film industry has moved higher and higher and higher in Chinese national oversight over the past 10 years. So we've seen from previously more local film industry oversight, to now this State Council oversight. What this means is that the role of the film industry in Chinese political life is increasing in prominence. It also means that regulations are becoming more conservative because individual municipalities or provinces had a little bit more flexibility, they could do things kind of further away from Beijing's eyes. So this is a really important shift that we're seeing. 

Xi Jinping is a known film buff. So this is something that he he pays attention to kind of and thinks about personally, it's also something that has been part of Chinese national strategies and a wide variety of different ways. 

Longtime Why It Matters listeners will know that Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful and assertive Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The special interest he has taken in film is just a small part of a wider strategy of asserting China’s power on the world stage while using economic, diplomatic and cultural leavers to try to change global perceptions of his authoritarian regime. Xi’s focus on censorship goes far beyond film, including the “great firewall” that bars Chinese citizens from accessing western platforms like Google and Facebook. 

SIERRA: So what is the Chinese model of censorship? I mean, I know you're saying that there's no specific list, but in general, you know, what kind of themes and scenes get cut? And on the same token, like, you know, what kind of scenes do they like?

TAGER: Well, they like scenes that portray China and its governance in a positive light, as a leader, being sort of strong and impressive. A great example that I would point to is 2014, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which began as a joint production with a Chinese state-owned company, The China Movie Channel.

Transformers: Age of Extinction 7:53 (Movie Scene)

KOKAS: One of the things that's really interesting about the film is that in order to save Hong Kong from from the Transformers, they have to make a call to the Chinese minister of defense in Beijing, who then sends naval ships into Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong as a way to assert China's protection of its national security, vis a vis Hong Kong. And it's these same arguments that are being used to do things like arrest activists, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. So we see a Michael Bay film echoing Chinese political discourse about its relationship with Hong Kong, which is really strange.

TAGER: Now, a lot of observers have pointed out that the Chinese officials in that movie are really seen as selfless and benevolent, particularly in their willingness to defend Hong Kong from this alien threat. Now, the film was released the same year as the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong calling for greater democratic freedoms. So we can really see the political interest of the Chinese government in being portrayed as a benevolent, paternalistic defender of Hong Kong from these alien forces, at the very time that there was a massive pro-democracy movement.

Unlike most Chinese citizens, residents of Hong Kong enjoyed democratic freedoms and civil liberties for decades, even after Britain handed the territory over to China in 1997. But in recent years, a series of crackdowns have made it seem like the days of Hong Kong’s freedom are numbered. This gives an entirely different context to a scene portraying the Chinese navy entering Hong Kong’s harbor in order to protect it. And to Hong Kong citizens who are fighting to preserve their freedom, something far more menacing than portrayals of heroic Chinese doctors. 

KOKAS: So the fact that this film was released the weekend before July 1, which is the anniversary of Hong Kong returning to the PRC, was really a significant period of time.

SIERRA: Yeah, I mean, that's pretty wild, because here in the US, most of us would have just seen, you know, a heroic moment, we wouldn't have noticed any of these undertones.

TAGER: But one thing I do want to note is, I think a lot of people just assume it's sort of the regular political messages that are seen as out of bounds. You know, don't mention Tibet, don't mention Taiwan, don't mention the Dalai Lama, don't talk about the Umbrella Protests, but the censorship system for movies is really a lot broader than that. It really is dynamic and censors have wide latitude to push for the changes they want. And many of the things that are blocked are tropes, or genres, that, I think if you're not Chinese, you'd be very surprised to hear about because they just wouldn't seem political and they wouldn't seem problematic. China's long standing ban on ghost stories is a great example. There are several different reasons that are given for this, you know, the most common one is this idea of kind of getting rid of superstition and discouraging superstition among the populace. However, in researching this is, there's one body of thought that says, well, actually, ghost stories are really much more inherently political in China than they are in many other countries because they were traditionally a vehicle by which you could criticize dead corrupt officials by portraying them as ghosts. Time Travel is another one. Time travel stories are really kind thema non grata, to mix and match my latin, within China and this will affect the movies that get to be shown. “Looper” is an interesting example. “Looper” was a joint production and some people may recall the movie, Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon Levitt, time travel was a big part of the movie. Now, it started as the script, the movie was set between Kansas and Paris. When Chinese financing and Chinese co-production came in, they proposed let's make this a joint production and let's instead of Paris, let's film it in China. And so one of the explanations that one of the producers gave was, we knew it would be hard to make a time travel movie and get it into China so we figured, okay, if we make the time travel movie about China in the future and it makes China look very good, we have a much higher chance of getting it sort of approved to be shown within China. So this is an example of the way that sort of business and the political interests of the Chinese government kind of coincide and I think there are many business people who say, well, you always look for the win-win. The issue here is one of the people winning in these situations is a government that is trying to push a specific political narrative through film.

SIERRA: So you mentioned joint productions with the Chinese government. Can you give me some details on how these partnerships work?

TAGER: So we talk about joint productions as, almost like a tripartite relationship: you have the foreign film making group, the domestic filmmaking group, and then the censor as sort of this invisible third partner. What this does is really allow the Chinese government a lot of leeway to influence the structure, story, and themes of the film. And it's a model that's growing as we speak. Particularly as Chinese production companies become larger, more technologically sophisticated with what they can pull off, more significant players in this field. 

KOKAS: So this is a really interesting shift in the dynamic. There's something called co-production, which is essentially when Hollywood studios go to China and try to make a film there. And as part of that condition, they have to give Chinese regulators oversight into the production process. So everything from pre-production, like, what's the idea to post-production, so final cut approval. And then there's something that I talk about in my book “Hollywood: Made in China” called a faux-production, where companies try to do this, they try to go through the process, but frankly, it's a huge headache, having a having a Chinese regulator, you know, check up on your on your film production is not something that most, you know, freewheeling Hollywood executives would be very excited about. So sometimes they pull back. But the part that's really interesting is, even after pulling back, we still see examples of potential Chinese government influence. 

SIERRA: Right. And as a viewer, you may not even notice or realize that it's important in some way? But you're saying it's setting a standard and planting a seed in the people who are viewing it.

KOKAS: Right, exactly. And I would argue, actually, this is it's much worse when it happens in a film like Transformers 4, than if it happens in some kind of historical drama where people are primed to think about questions of politics and history and human rights. In Transformers 4 people just want to see the explosions, and this is kind of slipping in underneath.

But there’s another recent example that has a bit of a different story, and that’s “Mulan”.  

Mulan 2:13 - 2:17 (Movie Scene)

SIERRA: So I feel like part of this conversation has to be me asking about “Mulan,” because I remember reading a lot about “Mulan” and some of the controversy around it. What role does that movie play in all this? 

TAGER: Yeah, so there's more than one controversy around “Mulan,” unfortunately. And when we did our report, we talked about the fact that the star of “Mulan,” Chinese-American actress Crystal Liu, she made several comments being supportive of the Hong Kong police during a wave of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. And one of the interesting things about that was how there appeared to be a government-backed social media campaign against the Hong Kong protests under the hashtag #SupportMulan. So it was literally a government-backed messaging narrative campaign using Mulan and Crystal Liu’s comment to push a political message. 

KOKAS: It was so shocking to see that the Chinese that the film itself that “Mulan” was actually echoing a lot of Chinese government discourse, a lot of Chinese government language about how it's necessary to quash Western rebellions as they were filming in Xinjiang, this site that the Chinese government deems its site of Western rebellion. So there's a whole history of the Chinese government having difficulties with minorities in the west of China. So we think about Tibet, we think about Xinjiang, because these were places that had, you know, long histories and traditions separate from the Han Chinese tradition. And in “Mulan” what we saw was this valorization of Chinese imperial culture, and the treatment of minorities in the west of China as barbarians, who needed to be quashed, and Disney made that film. And they made it in sites where there are concentration camp camps for Uighurs.

For those who don’t know, the situation in China's northwestern Xinjiang province is often cited as the most shocking sign of China’s growing authoritarianism under Xi Jinping. The region is the site of detention camps where more than a million members of the Muslim Uyghur minority are subjected to population control, forced labor, torture, sexual abuse, family separation and repression of cultural and religious expression.

The Chinese government, for its part, has denied that the abuses are taking place, despite the fact that they have been documented by  experts, journalists, survivors and government officials.

TAGER: At the credits of the movie, they literally thank several government agencies that are either actively involved in or propagandizing against the human rights abuses that are going on as we speak, in Xinjiang -- again, the internment of over a million Muslims there. And the revelation that the film has scenes that were shot presumably very close to where these internment centers are, and that the movie sort of went out of its way to thank these people who are involved in human rights abuses, is genuinely deeply troubling. 

KOKAS: There were boycotts related to this issue as well as the Hong Kong issue and the only time that Disney kind of spoke publicly about this in the period immediately following its release was a discussion by the CFO who was talking about, you know, issues with the film, presumably related to its financial performance.

SIERRA: So nothing about the human rights abuses happening right next to their film sites?

KOKAS: Not explicitly.

It should be noted that in an official response, Disney insisted that it filmed in Xinjiang for “authenticity”, and that their inclusion of thanks to Chinese authorities in the credits was in keeping with standard practices. Listeners can find their full response in the show notes. 

TAGER: I think that is emblematic of the larger attitude that Hollywood as an industry has taken towards this issue, which is, you know, they don't see much they don't see any upside to them dealing with it, they're under significant economic imperatives to play ball with the Chinese government, and they see engaging in this issue further as a lose-lose proposition, and they'd like everyone to just kind of move on and they hope that the issue sort of goes away. In fact, we expect that it will become worse for studios that the pressures on them to comply with these censorship strictures will become more and more intense, given how the Chinese box office is simply becoming more and more important to studios, and conversely, that the domestic filmmakers and filmmaking students in China are becoming more and more able to pull off big blockbuster movies. So Chinese film-going audiences need Hollywood less than less to get their fix of a blockbuster spectacle. But Hollywood as an industry needs access to Chinese audiences more and more.

KOKAS: So I think that this demonstrates the challenge that the US faces over the next 20 to 30 years. The US system is very focused on global profitability and we have a lot of companies that are, you know, listed on our stock exchanges that need to continue growing and the way that they continue growing is through expanding global markets. China is a really important global market. So it's, in some ways an existential question about the US system. To what degree do we continue prioritizing economic growth and economic growth in China? and to what degree do we take into account these other issues? 

SIERRA: What's the price we pay as a society for allowing a repressive regime to sorta shape the types of media we produce, and even the stories we tell?

TAGER: The cost will never be fully visible, and that's exactly the problem, right? The largest cost of this will be the movies that never get made, or that never gets written or filmed in the first place. This space for storytelling will narrow. And Hollywood is the world's largest storytelling center. And where Hollywood goes on this, so go other storytelling centers. I mean, Hollywood is not the only film industry that is being affected by this. So other film centers in the world Europe, India, Nigeria, as just examples, they having far less resources and access to, say, cutting edge technology than Hollywood does, if Hollywood is not going to stand up to this influence, it's hard for us to expect other smaller film centers to do so. So what we're talking about is a global shaping of the perhaps the most important storytelling medium that's ever existed to date, which is movies. And the movies that people consume influence their perception of what's going on in the world. So the idea that those movies by and large would be influenced systemically by an autocratic government is something that I'm not overstating when I say could have global consequences.

SIERRA: So would the US government ever step in something like this? Should they?

KOKAS: I mean, I think that there's not a there's not a big place for it. And let's be honest, like anytime the US government has gotten involved in the film industry, and in the past of the US, it hasn't really turned out that well, we don't want, like, a new McCarthy era. I think that there are a couple of things that can be done in terms of just like tracing financial transactions, requiring more reporting about who's funding what and that's something that I think studios can do and the US government can require that doesn't necessarily lead to the senators deciding what types of content gets produced in Hollywood, because that's a lose-lose.

TAGER: You know, as a matter of general principle, we're very leery of the idea of having governmental intervention to save free speech from governmental intervention, right? This is an area where anyone who's looking into a potential governmental or legislative solution on the US side should step pretty gingerly. And it really underscores the fact that what's best is if the industry on its own, takes unified and affirmative action on this. Both to protect their own interests, and because it just is objectively a better idea in terms of free speech and artistic expression to act before government figures, either rightly or wrongly feel like they need to act instead. Right? That's why one of our recommendations, is has been a voluntary disclosure mechanism that we think the industry should take on in a unified at large way, were somewhat similar to what Silicon Valley does, where they kind of periodically post their takedown requests they've received from governments around the world and we think that there's a model there that could be followed from Hollywood as an industry being like, these are the censorship requests we've received from around the world.

SIERRA: Do you think that more disclosure of how these decisions are made would help this whole process along and sort of bring it to light and then, you know, we could we could clean it up and get it taken care of?

KOKAS: I mean, I think that's really difficult, right? Because a lot of these are creative processes. So it's just as easy to say that this is just the kind of creative vision of these directors. And that's not something that I think we want to start trampling on within the US context, which is why I think following the money is a way that I feel more comfortable with. So, you know, maybe we set limits on the amount of funding that can come from certain firms. Or maybe we set limits on certain firms that can invest in Hollywood studio productions. That would be kind of as far as I would feel comfortable going. And I think that we also need to have conversations like this so that consumers have an understanding of how these market systems operate. And maybe push back on those more broadly.

TAGER: One of the things we talk about in our report as a recommendation is we would love to see American studios and filmmaking communities do more to encourage and partner with independent Chinese filmmakers, who often are underground or exiled if they don't want to participate in the censorship regime. We applaud cultural interchange and we always want to see more of it. And we don't want anyone to listen to, to this recording, or to read our report and think, oh, the solution is like, let's spend less time talking about Chinese themes or let’s just - 

SIERRA: Don't do anything with China ever again, right? 

TAGER: We want cultural interchange, the problem occurs when the sole gatekeepers to that cultural interchange use it as an opportunity to apply politically motivated censorship. So we encourage anyone who works in the film world to do what they can to work with Chinese filmmakers and tell Chinese stories, but we encourage them to do so in whatever way they can to avoid or to push back against this type of censorship. At the end of the day, we believe that sunlight remains the best disinfectant. Hollywood enjoys a reputation of being willing to speak truth to power here at home and by home, I refer to the United States. To the point where you have some Americans who are like, my goodness, these unpatriotic Hollywood figures, right? But they have that reputation of being willing to speak truth to power. We think that Hollywood as an industry has been less vocal on this issue when it comes to censorship in the Chinese government than it has been in making sure to push back against any attempted censorship from the United States government. We're asking for the same standard that Hollywood applies as an industry to its own relationship with governmental figures here in the United States in protecting artistic freedom. We're asking them to apply that same standard to its relationships with other governments around the world. 

China’s box office is only going to grow, and it may seem impossible to dissuade Hollywood from a profit motive that strong. 

But still, in recent years the American public has demonstrated its power to force Hollywood to make incremental progress on other issues. Moviegoers have been increasingly vocal about representations of gender and race, and Hollywood has begun to realize that ignoring these concerns can come at a cost. It would be good, perhaps, if “appeasing authoritarian governments and human rights abusers” was added to that list. 

But to make this happen audiences need to become more literate about what’s going on in the rest of the world. Understanding the situation in Hong Kong, or in Xinjiang, can help you read between the lines and see the true cost of censorship. 

The United States still has a lot of soft power, and Hollywood is one of the best examples of how that power touches the world. We would never accept censorship from our own government, why should we accept it from any other?


For resources used in this episode and more information, visit and take a look at the show notes.

Have a question or some feedback? Feel like saying hey? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. AND, please please, if you are a fan of the show, show some love!  Give us five stars and leave a review on Apple podcasts. It means so much to us and it helps us get noticed.

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. 

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Extra research was provided by Senniah Mason. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!

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The U.S.-Saudi relationship is fraught with complications. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves in the world, giving it influence over what Americans pay at the...

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Beware, coffee lovers: climate change could disrupt your precious morning cup of joe. Coffee beans could lose half of their farmable land by 2050 as temperatures and...

Beware, coffee lovers: climate change could disrupt your precious morning cup of joe. Coffee beans could lose half of their farmable land by 2050 as temperatures and...

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Hip-hop is a phenomenon that has captured hearts around the world. Its musical form ranges from party anthems to critical social commentary. But the genre plays anot...

Hip-hop is a phenomenon that has captured hearts around the world. Its musical form ranges from party anthems to critical social commentary. But the genre plays anot...

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For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, ...

For the past two thousand years, the pope has been a major player in global affairs. He is frequently called upon to act as a peace broker, a mediator, an advocate, ...

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In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

In this special episode, Why It Matters follows up with CFR President Richard Haass to hear his insights on the war in Ukraine.

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For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

For years, large corporations have exploited international tax laws to pay less taxes. But last year, 137 countries backed a potential solution: a 15 percent corpora...

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How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

How can the world create better medicines? More powerful solar cells? New batteries? The answers could come from a revolutionary research tool known as the quantum c...

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The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

The world is already witnessing the effects of climate change. One inescapable and irreversible consequence is sea-level rise, which could destroy coastal cities. Ho...

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In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

In this special episode, Why It Matters sits down with CFR President Richard Haass to ask the basic questions about the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Pu...

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The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

The world is moving toward electric vehicles and clean energy, but a green future doesn’t depend on wind turbines, solar panels, and Teslas alone. It will also requi...

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Top Stories on CFR

Energy and Environment

Billion-dollar disasters such as Hurricane Ian are on the rise in the United States. Officials should take swift action to reduce the damage and protect Americans.

Monetary Policy

Many central banks are navigating turbulent waters as they battle inflation, a strengthening dollar, and an energy crunch. Should they coordinate policy?

United States

Violence during the election season undermines the United States’ democracy, its relationship with allies, and its strength against adversaries.