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US-China Frictions in Film: Hollywood With Chinese Characteristics

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China Power

US-China Frictions in Film: Hollywood With Chinese Characteristics

China’s film policies are a window into its broader view of cultural products.

US-China Frictions in Film: Hollywood With Chinese Characteristics
Credit: Flickr/ Kenneth Lu

There has been some speculation among U.S. film industry insiders that the Chinese government may be willing to significantly loosen limits on foreign films that can be shown in China in the year 2017. As 2016 draws to a close, the U.S. film industry has observed certain seemingly positive signs that industry authorities in China may be willing to negotiate flexibly in the New Year. For example, by the end of 2016, at least 38 foreign films will have been released in China, a number that exceeds the 34 films mandated in current bilateral agreements.

This seems to confirm previous assertions made by China Central Television (CCTV) executive Lu Hongshi, a senior producer and industry adviser, that the foreign film quota is on track to open up further in 2017-2018. Lu has stated, “Leveraging the Chinese market is the Chinese dream of the Americans,” although he admitted that it remains to be seen how quickly restrictions are lifted.

The current challenges and constraints that U.S. film companies have confronted in their attempts to gain access to China offer an interesting window into the politicized and restricted environment of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) politics and cultural industry. Unsurprisingly, films that feature favorable views of the Chinese government and promote “traditional Chinese values” as competitive in modern society are more likely to be selected by Chinese film industry authorities for showing in China and to prove competitive in this market. This tends to create incentives for U.S. film companies to adjust their content in accordance with these implicit stipulations, which raises concerns about self-censorship.

Similarly, films that have been produced through co-production arrangements that impart U.S. filmmaking skills and technologies to Chinese partners will presumably be preferred by these authorities, since such transfers of expertise can contribute to the development of the indigenous Chinese film industry, which in turn can promote CPC propaganda. These issues have been a source of ongoing controversy in the U.S.-China relationship for many years.

After the 2010 World Trade Organization (WTO) finding that China’s constraints on foreign film imports to domestic theaters were in violation of its trading obligations, China and the United States endorsed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that increased the latter’s market access and boosted revenue for U.S. film companies, temporarily settling the dispute. This deal ensures that 34 revenue-sharing foreign films are imported to China annually and that foreign studios receive 25 percent of box office receipts. The MoU also calls for further consultations in 2017 to discuss increasing foreign film importation and compensation. The U.S. reserves the right to pursue procedural WTO action against China in 2018 should consultations fail to secure a new agreement.

Beyond of the issues of revenue and import limits, the reality of stifling censorship is a core point of contention between U.S. film companies and the Chinese government, since all foreign films must pass strict regulations set by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT). These regulations include guaranteeing that films adhere to upholding social morality, and prohibit negative depictions of authorities or China in general.

Despite this year’s apparent trend of loosening constraints, Chinese government priorities for the country’s cultural industry suggest that U.S. film companies will continue to operate in a politicized and restricted environment, even if the number of foreign films released in China appreciably increases. Certain relevant CPC directives and state policy guidelines aim to promote socialist culture, strengthen China’s domestic film industry, and enhance the appeal of Marxism to Chinese citizens. These directives suggest that regulations will selectively promote co-production arrangements that transfer advanced filmmaking techniques from U.S. filmmakers to their Chinese counterparts. For CPC authorities, the imperatives of controlling the cultural sector and developing an indigenous film industry, which is considered a component of Chinese soft power, could ultimately result in a willingness to risk continued frictions with the U.S. film industry on this issue.

A quick review of some of the relevant central directives, official guidelines, and leadership statements regarding China’s cultural sector offer an indication of the CPC’s priorities, and suggest that Hollywood should not expect much to change.

18th Party Congress Report Directives

The 18th Party Congress Report constitutes the most authoritative source for central directives on China’s cultural sector, which includes the film industry. This report establishes the CPC’s consensus on all policy sectors until the upcoming 19th Party Congress, which will take place in fall 2017. Section six of the report is dedicated to “Developing a Strong Socialist Culture in China,” which it characterizes as “the lifeblood of the nation.” The report issues the directive to take “the socialist path of promoting cultural advance with Chinese characteristics,” which involves promoting socialist culture, increasing China’s soft power, and enabling culture to guide society. It also calls for the strengthening of socialist morals and patriotism, along with the appeal of Marxism to the people.

Central to these directives is the concept of strengthening the nation’s core socialist values system, which is considered the “soul of the Chinese nation.” This notion of “core socialist values,” first adopted at the 17th Party Congress, reflects the CPC’s attempt to position itself as the moral standard bearer of the nation, thus enhancing its political legitimacy. The system of core socialist values consists of the following: 1) the guiding ideology of Marxism; 2) the common ideal of socialism with Chinese characteristics; 3) national spirit with patriotism at the core; 4) the spirit of the times with reform and innovation at the core; and 5) the socialist concept of honor and disgrace, which emphasizes patriotism, abiding by the law, and living plainly.

The report plans to realize these goals by developing and releasing China’s “cultural productive forces.” This entails creating cultural products that provide people with “nourishments for the mind.” Such cultural products are required to focus upon the rule of law, family virtues, and traditional Chinese virtues. While the report also calls for encouraging “the free flow of cultural inspiration from all sources” and drawing on the “cultural achievements” of other countries, foreign achievements will continue to be assessed in accordance with the standard of the CPC’s core socialist values system, which is the basis for developing a strong socialist culture in China.

13th Five-Year Plan Guidelines

The 13th Five Year Plan, which constitutes the most authoritative strategic vision for China’s economic and social policies, translates central directives for the country’s cultural sector into an official blueprint for the period of 2016-2020. The plan calls for the prosperous development of film and television in the context of enhancing socialist literature and arts. Under the framework of integrating core socialist values with all areas of economic and social development, the plan also calls for advancing the dissemination of Chinese values and cultural spirit, as well as constructing a literature and arts force that is “excellent in both performance skills and moral integrity.”

High-Level Leadership Statements

High-level statements by the CPC leadership continue to emphasize the themes of the 18th Party Congress Report and the 13th Five Year Plan. In May 2016, CPC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that the basic “cultural genes” of Chinese culture must be elucidated and adapted to fit today’s culture and society. Xi has continued to highlight the importance of cultural self-confidence, asserting that confidence in the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is based on confidence in China’s 5000-year-old culture.

In September 2016, CPC Propaganda Department Minister Liu Qibao, whose portfolio includes oversight of SAPPRFT, promoted the designation of “advanced individuals” who possess core socialist values to act as a benchmark for citizens. Liu emphasized that the people must feel that advanced role models are “at their side” and “in front of their eyes.” At a SAPPRFT work meeting in November 2016, SAPPRFT Chief Nie Chenxi required his administration to promote core socialist values, the Chinese people’s excellent traditional culture, and the production of premium products. He emphasized the need to strengthen artistic requirements, adhere to CPC Propaganda Department regulations, and advance foreign propaganda efforts. Nie was confirmed to be the new chief of SAPPRFT in October 2016, and is expected to manage the administration for the near future.

Future Trajectory of Conditionality and Constraints

Within the cultural sector, the CPC will continue to pursue the imperative of promoting values that support its own political legitimacy to retain a position of predominance within Chinese society. The core objectives associated with this agenda include: to propagate a values system that upholds the CPC as the vanguard of morality in China; to instill the Chinese citizenry with a sense of patriotism; to uphold Chinese authorities as fair and just; and to promote traditional Chinese culture as relevant to modern society. These goals will presumably continue to come into conflict with the interests of U.S. and other foreign film companies that seek access to the Chinese market through imposing implicit constraints on content that may result in a tendency towards self-censorship.

Given these objectives, the Chinese authorities will probably continue to take advantage of the expertise of foreign filmmakers through co-production arrangements that impart U.S. filmmaking skills and technology to Chinese counterparts. For instance, previous successful co-production arrangements have included the transfer of animation technologies, as well as painting, sculpting, and acting skills. In this regard, the CPC will seek to balance the objectives of imposing constraints upon the content introduced into China through the foreign film industry, while taking advantage of its expertise to advance a domestic film production force that is “excellent in performance skills and moral integrity.”

In essence, like many industries that seek the privilege of access to China’s massive market, U.S. filmmakers will be expected to adapt to “Chinese conditions” by ensuring their products possess “Chinese characteristics,” all the while contributing to domestic competitors that may eventually replace them.

David Gitter is the editor and Great Helmsman of PARTY WATCH, the premier weekly intelligence report on the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.

Elsa Kania is a researcher for PARTY WATCH and an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group.