Long Form: America’s Greatest Cultural Export
Xi Jinping is a very busy man. On his last trip to Latin America, the President of China signed 40 trade agreements, met with a number of national leaders, and promised $250 billion in investments. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. In recent years, China hasn’t been shy in their ambitions to be a more dominant force on the global stage.
But how does a country, hoping to erase a century of anemic growth, plan to accumulate power? In the international arena, power is largely accumulated through financial gains. Since their economic revolution in 1979, the pace of China’s economic transformation has been extraordinary. In 1978, China was one of the poorest nations in the world. China’s GDP was only one-fortieth of the U.S. By 2021, some economic forecasts predict China will eclipse America as the world’s largest economy. Yet, China is working just as hard to expand their power through another other avenue — soft power.
Joseph Nye, architect of the theory, describes soft power as the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by coercion, using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Examples of soft power include Italy’s art scene, France’s Age of Enlightenment, or India’s Bollywood.
How does China plan to expand their soft power? Through film; specifically, the American film industry.
Over the past five years, Chinese investment in the United States has expanded from $2 billion per year to approximately $20 billion. The major focus of China’s investment in the United States is media companies, which produce the news and entertainment that so often mold our understanding of the world.
One Chinese company, Dalian Wanda, has purchased the Hollywood movie studio Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion and is now hoping to acquire a 49 percent stake in Paramount Pictures, as well as purchase America’s two biggest movie theater chains: AMC and Carmike Cinemas. This doesn’t include other Chinese investments in film studios, which would expand the total portion of Chinese box office control even higher.
This is by no means an ad-hoc business venture from Beijing. Findings by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that “China views film as a component of social control: in a 2014 speech, President Xi Jinping reaffirmed Mao Zedong’s dictate that ‘[Chinese] art serve politics.” A new report published by China’s governing body, the Communist China Party (CPC), argued films (regardless of origin) are the key to “Developing a strong socialist culture and that Maoist socialism was the lifeblood of the nation.”
Why should we care? By cannibalizing the financing and circulation of American films, and subjecting them to certain restrictions to gain access to Sino markets, Beijing could successfully dictate what is and isn’t developed — leading to enormous control over America’s greatest cultural export.
Yet, despite these concerns, American filmmakers might be financially compelled to acquiesce to Sino censorship. Our frenemies in the Far East love movies. Since 2015, movie viewership in Asia’s largest economy expanded by 50%. As the second largest movie market in the world, China is home to the world’s largest number of project screens with more than 7,800 theatres. With only 38 foreign films being allowed to be shown a year, there is immense competition from US cinema producers to tailor a product that is favorably received by Chinese lawmakers.
Thus, movies like Skyfall, World War Z, Kung Fu Panda, and many more US-based flicks have not only dramatically altered their script, but original cinematic direction after scrutiny from the CPC.
Yet, gaining favor with Beijing may come at an international cost. Aside from China, the rest of the world appreciates the power and purity of American cinema. The UK House of Common Culture, Media, and Sports Committee estimates that roughly 20% of American visitors to the UK came to visit based on the way their nation was portrayed in films or television. India’s first Prime Minister Jahal Nehru claimed, “the influence of international movies in India is greater than newspapers and book combined.” Almost seventy years later, in a meeting with President Obama (#missyoualready), current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed how certain US films inspired his civic participation. A Pew Recent Center survey commissioned in 2013 found that seven out of ten of those surveyed in Japan, Mexico, and Brazil say American films made a significant impact on their lives.
After viewing the latest DC Comic film, anything with Adam Sandler, or all five Ice Age sagas one maybe disheartened with the state of America cinema. But even the most creative industries produce lackadaisical products, and the US movie industry is no exception.
Nonetheless, the collective experience of film viewing should not be dismissed. US cinema has always been an opportunity to imagine, escape from reality, a means to educate, a platform for conversation, and an ever-rare commonality among people across the political spectrum. Moreover, film is one of the most accessible art forms, in which participation is not defined by social class.
The American film industry has been an avenue for authentic storytelling, an invaluable cultural export, and yes — a source our own soft power. Tom Sherak, The former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once said, “Film is a reflection of society, both past and present.” That invaluable lens into our social fabric, no matter how imperfect it may be, should not be in the hands of those who don’t appreciate that art.