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Made in Hollywood, censored by Beijing (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 5 August 2020.

This report examines the ways in which Beijing’s censors have affected and influenced Hollywood and the global filmmaking industry. Stories shape the way people think, and the stories told by Hollywood reach billions. As an anti-censorship organization dedicated to the celebration of open cultural and artistic expression, PEN America has sought to understand how one of the world’s most censorious regimes is extending its influence over the global locus for filmmaking here in the United States, shaping what is perhaps the world’s most influential artistic and cultural medium.

PEN America defends and celebrates freedom of expression in the United States and globally. Our work has included a decades-long advocacy engagement on China, where dozens of members of our sister PEN organization – the Independent Chinese PEN Center – have been imprisoned or persecuted by Beijing. The most influential of those colleagues was Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence for his writings when he died of liver cancer. Our work has involved advocacy campaigns, detailed research reports, literary exchanges, and other efforts aimed at pushing back against Beijing’s censorship policies and its criminalization of dissent.

Over the last decade or more, as Beijing has expanded its global role as a world power, leading trade partner, sovereign investor, and cultural influence, these domestic patterns of censorship and control have extended beyond China’s borders. Beijing’s rising global influence has meant that the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) approach to censorship is making itself felt by publishers, authors, scholars, writers, journalists, and others who address topics of interest to China, regardless of their citizenship or where they are based. In 2015, PEN America documented Chinese publishers’ censorship of Chinese-language translations of foreign authors in our report Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship. In 2016, we analyzed the CCP’s efforts to affect foreign media’s coverage of the country in Darkened Screen: Constraints on Foreign Journalists in China, and its enforced disappearance of five publishers (including two with foreign citizenship) connected to a Hong Kong bookstore in Writing on the Wall: Disappeared Booksellers and Free Expression in Hong Kong. In 2018, our research on social media censorship in China for Forbidden Feeds: Government Controls on Social Media in China included an analysis of how Beijing’s digital censorship affected users of Chinese digital platforms even when they were outside the country.

We have seen this exportation of censorious pressure elsewhere, so much so that there is a long – and growing longer -list of examples from the last few years alone: the major academic publisher Cambridge University Press attempting to pull titles from access by Chinese audience due to fear of CCP retaliation; the consistent degradation of press freedoms and civil liberties in Hong Kong; New Zealand publishers finding their books censored by Chinese printers; academics and students across the globe facing intimidation when they speak out on issues the CCP considers sensitive; and global brands forced to apologize simply for printing the words “Taiwan” or “the Dalai Lama.”

Increasingly, Beijing’s economic clout has allowed it to insist that others comply with its censorship strictures – or has led others to voluntarily internalize these strictures, even without being asked – as a prerequisite to doing business with or in the country. While individual compromises may seem minor or worthwhile in exchange for the opportunity to engage with China’s population, the collective global implications of playing by Beijing’s rules need to be recognized and understood before acquiescence to Chinese censorship becomes a new normal in countries that have prided themselves for their staunch free speech protections.

Hollywood is an important bellwether. The Chinese government, under Xi Jinping especially, has heavily emphasized its desire to ensure that Hollywood filmmakers – to use their preferred phrase – “tell China’s story well.” Within the pages of this report, we detail how Hollywood decision-makers and other filmmaking professionals are increasingly making decisions about their films – the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings – based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.

As U.S. film studios compete for the opportunity to access Chinese audiences, many are making difficult and troubling compromises on free expression: changing the content of films intended for international – including American -audiences; engaging in self-censorship; agreeing to provide a censored version of a movie for screening in China; and in some instances directly inviting Chinese government censors onto their film sets to advise them on how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires. These concessions to the power of the Chinese market have happened mostly quietly, with little attention and, often, little debate. Steadily, a new set of mores has taken hold in Hollywood, one in which appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has simply become a way of doing business.9

Read the full report.

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