WASHINGTON, DC — The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using its financial clout over Hollywood to exert influence and deepen its authoritarianism by censoring alternative ideas, an expert warned a House panel on Thursday.
Christopher Walker, the vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), argued that China had co-opted Hollywood to support Beijing’s authoritarian goals. Moreover, he pointed out that Beijing gained control of some U.S.-based traditional media outlets, noting that the CCP is clandestinely spreading its message on American soil via more than a dozen radio stations.
The Chinese government has trained its attention on Hollywood, where its presence shapes the industry in ways both visible and unseen. Because China is an increasingly important market for the global film industry, entertainment firms have been striking deals that help give them access to that market, but put them at the mercy of Chinese censors.
This leads to content either edited to fit the Chinese market, or proactively shaped to exclude anything the Chinese government might consider sensitive in the first place. Chinese co-productions are also more likely to feature positive depictions of China.
Walker identified changes made to some of America’s favorite movies to avoid “offending China’s sensibilities” as an example of the extent of authoritarian China’s influence over Hollywood.
Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” changed one character’s origin story from Tibetan to Celtic; the screenwriter acknowledged that offending China’s sensibilities was a concern. Prominent Tibet supporter and actor Richard Gere told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that the year before he “had an episode where someone said they could not finance a film with [him] because it would upset the Chinese.”
Walker argued that the United States is not immune to Beijing’s efforts to expand its form of governance outside China.
“The pattern of China’s engagement that has taken shape globally has not eluded the U.S.,” he said.
Walker noted that Beijing is acting “as a hidden hand behind a global web of stations” that primarily broadcast content created or supplied by the Chinese communist party.
“More than a dozen stations across the United States operate as part of the CCP’s ‘borrowed boat’ approach, in which existing media outlets in foreign countries are used to project China’s messages,” he said.
Walker cited a November 2018 report by the Hoover Institution and Asia Society, which pointed out:
China’s influence activities have moved beyond their traditional … focus on diaspora communities to target a far broader range of sectors in Western societies, ranging from think tanks, universities, and media to state, local, and national government institutions.
China seeks to promote views sympathetic to the Chinese Government, policies, society, and culture; suppress alternative views; and co-opt key American players to support China’s foreign policy goals and economic interests.
Beijing also operates the China Central Television (CCTV) channel on U.S. soil.
Walker noted that China is capitalizing on America’s openness to advance its goals.
He told lawmakers:
Having learned to control political ideas within their own countries, autocrats are now bending globalization to their own ends by manipulating discourse abroad, especially in the wide-open information space afforded to them by the democracies. Massive investments in overseas media infrastructure play a central role.
During the hearing, the witnesses said that China is using technology to expand its authoritarianism and ultimately threatened the survival of democracy and the U.S.-led international order.
Peter Mattis from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation blasted the United States for failing to respond “to violence, coercion, and intimidation committed or instigated by PRC [People’s Republic of China] officials on U.S. soil.”
“These are allegedly criminal acts committed by a foreign government against our people on our soil, and U.S. authorities did not open criminal investigations,” he added.
He also condemned the United States for not responding “to PRC education officials intimidating Chinese students on university campuses, despite this activity not being consistent with their diplomatic status.”
All expert witnesses urged the United States to take action to rein in China’s digital authoritarianism.