The Film Censorship Cold War — China vs the US

Both Countries Censor Hollywood and Use it as a Propaganda Vehicle

Tom Secker
Oct 4, 2019 · 20 min read

Recently, Martha Bayles of The Atlantic published a hilariously misleading essay calling for Hollywood to produce more pro-American propaganda, in the face of the Chinese government’s increased role in the entertainment industry. While FAIR have put out a solid rebuttal of Bayles’ hack quackery (hat tip to Max Parry who pointed me to these articles) their piece is a little tame, and the problem of US government censorship of films is far greater than they outline.

I have specialised in the issue of government manipulation of Hollywood for several years, which has included filing hundreds of FOIA requests to gain documents detailing how the US government has censored and influenced Hollywood scripts. As such, I feel the need to offer my own dissection of Bayles’ awful misrepresentation of the reality of goverment control in Hollywood, so we’re going to take it claim-by-claim.

Claim #1 — China’s Government Censors Hollywood Movies

Bayles’ initial tenet is not wrong — the Chinese government have adopted a heavy-handed approach to censoring films.

Until 1994 China’s one-party state only allowed a tiny handful of foreign productions to be shown in the country, but box office receipts plummeted in the early 90s, leading to a change of policy. In 1994 The Fugitive became the first newly-released US film to be allowed full access to the lucrative Chinese domestic market, and a deal was struck with the US government to allow 10 major US productions per year — increased to 20 in 2001.

But Hollywood wasn’t satisfied, so in 2007 the US government brought a World Trade Organisation case against China, and the WTO found in favour of the US and gave China until 2011 to respond.

In early 2012 the Chinese government struck a new deal that increased the import quota of American movies to 34, though the additional 14 films had to be in 3-D or IMAX format, keeping the number of traditional format US films at 20. According to a State Department memo outlining the 2012 agreement this was supposed to be a five-year plan, renegotiated in 2017, but two years on from that deadline and there is no sign of a new deal.

Those films that do try to gain access to the Chinese market — now one of the largest in the world, as China now has more movie theaters than the US — are subject to strict censorship controls by the Chinese government’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), formerly the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT, 2013–2018).

The best summary of this censorship is a report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, titled Directed by Hollywood, Edited by China: How China’s Censorship and Influence Affect Films Worldwide. While it adopts the same one-sided protectionist rhetoric as Bayles and others, it is well-researched and packed with useful information.

Numerous high-profile Western films had to remove or edit scenes in order to appease the Chinese censors, and thus be allowed access to China’s movie market. In China, Mission: Impossible 3 was shown without a scene showing clothes drying on a clothesline in Shanghai, because they felt it was not a positive portrayal (though it is an accurate one). Skyfall had to lose a scene in which Bond kills a Chinese security guard, because the censors didn’t like a Chinese citizen being killed by a foreigner.

2010’s The Karate Kid was co-produced with a Chinese studio but the censors didn’t like the fact the villain was Chinese. In total, 12 minutes were chopped out of the film before it could be shown in China. A 3-D version of Top Gun was banned from China because it showed American military dominance against an East Asian enemy. Men in Black III had to remove a scene featuring the flashy thing that is used to erase people’s memories, because the NRTA felt it might be a reflection on China’s internet censorship policies.

All this does have an upstream effect, where producers pre-empt these sorts of issues so they make creative decisions to avoid problems with the censorship board. For example, on Dr Strange the character of The Ancient One was changed from a Tibetan man to a white Western woman. As screenwriter Robert Cargill explained, the decision was made in order to avoid offending China:

The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls**t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political’.

However, this is no different to dozens of other countries who censor films not just to keep sex and violence out of movies aimed at children, but for political and social ‘stability’ i.e. the maintenance of power by the ruling system.

Jordan is especially bad for this, where their Audiovisual Licensing and Censorship Rating System applies stringent restrictions on entertainment content, saying it must not:

Insult His Majesty the King or the royal family or slander any of the Abrahamic faiths. Furthermore, material must not include content that provokes civil strife, promotes racism or sectarianism or that could destabilize the security and safety of the country. Finally, the film must not contain material that flares sexual content, encourages pornography, violence, crime, deviance, or offenses against the public order.

An employee of this system outlined some specific examples:

The employee mentions that one of his last requests was to remove the sex scenes from The Hateful Eight in order to permit its screening in theatres. In Fast and Furious 7, the deleted scene is when actor Vin Diesel mentions that a millionaire Jordanian prince invited them to a party in his luxury apartment in Etihad Towers, where he keeps a magnificent “eye-watering” car. The opening scene in American Sniper did not reach the big screen in Jordan because the call to prayer could be heard in the introduction before American tanks begin to enter Baghdad’s streets — reason enough to insult religious sensibility, according to Rasmi Mahasneh, the classifications division’s director in the Media Commission.

However, Jordan is not an economic powerhouse who are standing up to US hegemony, so the US media doesn’t really care about their censorship of Hollywood movies. Ditto Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Claim #1 Assessment: True, but very partial and therefore misleading.

Claim #2 — Chinese Government Censorship is Covert, While in the US Movie Censorship is an Open Process

Bayles’ second major claim is that the Chinese government’s censorship system is shrouded in secrecy, while the equivalents in Western democracies are public and overt:

Simultaneously the world’s most profitable and censorious market, China has led Hollywood down the path of submission to a state censorship apparatus whose standards are as murky and unpredictable as those of most democratic countries are clear and consistent.

It is true that NRTA’s standards are not applied equally and fairly — for example The Flowers of War (a Chinese-produced film starring Christian Bale) contains graphic violence in its depiction of the Nanking massacre. This would normally be something the NRTA would censor, but the film stoked anti-Japanese sentiments and was considered to be China’s best bet for an Oscar, so the NRTA fun police left it alone.

However, the same is true of Western ‘democratic’ censorship bodies like the MPAA and the BBFC, where standards seem to vary depending on how big the production is. As revealed in This Film is Not Yet Rated, the excellent documentary about the MPAA’s censorship system, larger studio productions are given more leeway than smaller or independent studio films.

When it comes to the specific standards and limitations enforced by these bodies, the MPAA and BBFC do not publish their dos and don’ts in any form, and haven’t done since the days of the formal Production Code.

But China does.

Their 2016 Film Industry Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China is widely available online in both Chinese and English, and lists the content deemed problematic or politically unacceptable:

1) Opposing the fundamental principles laid down in the Constitution of the P.R.C..
2) Jeopardizing the unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State.
3) Divulging State secrets, jeopardizing the security of the State, or impairing the prestige and interests of the State.
4) Inciting hatred and discrimination among ethnic groups, harming their unity, or violating their customs and habits.
5) Propagating cults and superstition.
6) Disrupting public order and undermining social stability.
7) Propagating obscenity, gambling or violence, or abetting to commit crimes.
8) Insulting or slandering others, or infringing upon the legitimate rights and interests of others.
9) Jeopardizing social ethics or fine national cultural traditions.

While these are fairly broad brushes that are open to interpretation, at least we know what the law actually says, and so do Chinese citizens. Contrary to Bayles’ claim it is actually the Western democracies who censor films without making the public aware of what they are censoring and why (though the BBFC do produce a semi-regular podcast that is quite interesting).

However, much more important than ad hoc self-regulatory bodies such as the MPAA and BBFC is the politically-motivated censorship carried out by the US government. As I revealed in my book with Matt Alford — National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood — the Pentagon and the CIA routinely rewrite movie scripts when film-makers come to them seeking production support.

I will discuss this in more detail below, but what’s key to claim #2 is the fact that this censorship is done largely in secret and remains undiscussed by the majority of US news and cultural media. While every major outlet reporting on Hollywood has put out multiple articles in recent years about the Chinese government’s censorship of movies, very few have published about the equivalent censorship by the US government. I have pitched articles on this subject to a variety of Hollywood publications and am frequently told things like ‘this isn’t an editorial angle we’re interested in pursuing at this time’.

In terms of an explicit cover-up I could tell you dozens of stories but I’ll settle for just one. In 2016 I put in a FOIA request with the US Navy for copies of:

  1. Reports from their entertainment liaison office, detailing which projects were supported and which were rejected.
  2. Production assistance agreements — the contracts signed between the Pentagon and Hollywood producers.
  3. Script notes — the specific feedback sent to producers detailing the changes required for their film to qualify for military support.

After two years of messing me around, the Navy claimed they had located over 800 pages of the reports, but couldn’t release a single page due to commercial confidentiality. I successfully appealed this finding, which took several more months, and eventually they released the documents to me.

When it came to the contracts the Navy denied having copies of any such documents, and said they were the responsibility of the DOD and not the Navy. I appealed against this, proving they had previously released the contracts for Captain Phillips and other Navy-supported films, and eventually they provided me with over 500 pages of production assistance agreements.

When it came to script notes, they again refused to release any, saying they couldn’t find any such documents anywhere in their systems. Again, I appealed, and pointed to the script notes they’d released for the film Lone Survivor. Again, months went by but eventually the Navy realised I had caught them in another lie, conceded defeat, and provided me with some notes.

For a movie that isn’t being made.

And where every page is almost entirely redacted.

Perhaps this obvious cover-up is what Bayles means by the ‘clear and consistent’ standards of Western democratic film censorship?

For someone who lectures in the humanities and used to be an arts and television critic for the Wall Street Journal I can only assume Bayles knows that the Pentagon censors Hollywood movies, because if she doesn’t then she’s profoundly ignorant of a phenomenon that is integral to everything she writes and says.

Claim #2 Assessment: Fundamentally untrue.

Claim #3 — The US Government Hasn’t Worked Closely With Hollywood Since WW2

By far Bayles’ most misleading statement — and one that she paranthetically admits isn’t true — is that the US government hasn’t had a close working relationship with Hollywood since World War 2:

Over the years, the U.S. government has often praised and defended Hollywood films as a key component of American soft power — that is, as a storytelling medium that can, without engaging in blatant propaganda, convey American ideals, including free expression itself, to foreign populations around the world. But Hollywood has long since abandoned that role. Indeed, not since the end of World War II have the studios cooperated with Washington in furthering the nation’s ideals. Instead, the relationship today is purely commercial — on both sides. For example, Hollywood frequently enlists Washington’s help in fighting piracy and gaining access to foreign markets. But even while providing that help, Washington refrains from asking Hollywood to temper its more negative portrayals of American life, politics, and global intentions. (The exception is the Department of Defense, which insists on approving the script of every film produced with its assistance.)

There is so much wrong with this paragraph that it is difficult to know where to begin. But I’ll give it a go:

  1. Free expression isn’t an American ideal, the idea originated hundreds of years before the European discovery of the Americas.
  2. When the government only supports films that say the things it wants them to say, and refuses to support others (often resulting in the films never being made) then that isn’t free expression. It’s government censorship.
  3. When the government only supports films that are rewritten to suit its objectives, that is state propaganda.
  4. The Hollywood-government relationship isn’t purely commercial.
  5. Hollywood has not ‘abandoned’ its role as a tool of soft power — films remain one of the US’s most profitable exports and they almost invariably portray American society positively. Indeed, the fact that Hollywood are trying to gain more access to the market of the only superpower in a position to challenge US hegemony proves the industry hasn’t abandoned this role.
  6. The US government very much does ‘ask Hollywood to temper its more negative portrayals of American life, politics, and global intentions.’ In some cases, it outright demands it.
  7. It isn’t just the Department of Defense who work with Hollywood and rewrite scripts to suit their PR and propaganda objectives.

These last two points are the most important. I will cite three examples of the US government tempering negative portrayals of ‘American life, politics, and global intentions’ but I could offer you hundreds.

Example One: Hulk and Operation Ranch Hand

On 2003’s Hulk (the Ang Lee monster/superhero horror movie) the US military requested so many changes that they actually apologised to the producers. One such change came in the second half of the film, when Hulk escapes from confinement on a military base (actually filmed at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake).

The original script called the military mission to capture the Hulk by the codename ‘Operation Ranch Hand’, but the Marine Corps script notes say that ‘Ranch Hand is a Vietnam era operation, we can suggest alternatives’. This was changed to Hulk being codenamed ‘Angry Man’.

So what was Operation Ranch Hand? It was a massive chemical warfare program that saw the US Air Force spray around 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants on Vietnam, to try to starve the Viet Cong and the local people supporting them. It was nothing less than an act of genocide and an environmental catastrophe.

If the military censoring a reference to Ranch Hand from a superhero movie doesn’t constitute ‘Washington asking Hollywood to temper negative portrayals of American global intentions’ then I honestly don’t know what does meet that criteria.

Example Two: Markinson’s Suicide Note in A Few Good Men

One of the negative consequences of American life and politics is the tragically high rate of suicide and mental illness among current and former military personnel — an issue the military entertainment liaison offices have consistently censored (or tried to censor) from TV and movie scripts.

One such instance is in A Few Good Men, the military legal drama from the early 90s. During negotiations with the Pentagon the DOD asked that Markinson character — who blows the whistle on a code red that resulted in the death of a marine — not commit suicide in the middle of the film. The producers refused to change this script element, seeing it as crucial to the unfolding drama, so the Pentagon asked them to rewrite his suicide note to make it have a more ‘positive message’. Again, the producers refused, so the film only qualified for minimal military support.

Again, this is exactly what Bayles says doesn’t happen, displaying a surprising ignorance for a professor who teaches about movies and politics.

Example Three: Military Rape and NCIS

Along similar lines is the widespread problem of rape and sexual assault in the military, which their Hollywood offices have also tried to downplay, minimise and censor from screenplays.

One of the most egregious examples of military manipulation in the entertainment industry is when the Navy pitched the producers of NCIS an idea for an episode highlighting how well they are doing at countering this problem. This is in stark contrast to the reality, but the NCIS producers agreed and a couple of months later delivered the script. It was then rewritten at the Navy’s behest, to remove any impression of an institutional culture of covering up these crimes, and to show ‘sailors helping sailors’ who are victims of sex crimes.

According to Bayles this simply doesn’t happen, but documents from the Navy’s entertainment liaison office confirm this is exactly what happened, and the resulting episode is so brazen in its promotion of the Navy’s response to military rape that it can only be described as propaganda.

Meanwhile, it isn’t just the Department of Defense that acts in this way. The CIA rewrote the script for Zero Dark Thirty, removing (for example) a scene where a CIA officer drunkenly fires an AK-47 off the roof of the embassy in Islamabad. The FBI rewrites movies including The Company You Keep, where among other changes they removed a scene where FBI agents call in a hoax bomb threat in order to evacuate a hotel. The Feds also removed a scene from Unthinkable where Samuel L Jackson murders two federal agents and the Bureau covers it up.

Contracts I obtained from the DEA show they are also active in Hollywood, including providing consultants on the hit TV show Breaking Bad. They have consistently forbidden film-makers from depicting the DEA carrying out wiretaps and other electronic surveillance on suspects, and no DEA-supported documentary is allowed to show any shooting incident, regardless of who fires or what the outcome is.

Homeland Security, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, the Secret Service, State Department, Bureau of Prisons, Department of Energy, the White House and even NASA also have a role in Hollywood, none of which is acknowledged in Bayles’ article whining about the (alleged) lack of government influence in the entertainment industry.

Her entire premise is an argument from ignorance, which is unforgivable in a professional intellectual.

If anything, the US government is more involved in Hollywood now than it was during WW2, as numerous agencies have joined the FBI and the military in manipulating films and TV for PR and propaganda purposes. Indeed, some of the most recent documents from the Army’s entertainment liaison office show that they met with officials from the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) to advise them on how best to set up their own Hollywood office.

Claim #3 Assessment: Flat out wrong, and displays a dangerous ignorance for an academic and cultural critic.

Claim #4 — We Need Hollywood to Make More Propaganda

Bayles laments what she wrongly sees as Chinese government influence on Hollywood superceding that of the US government. Her article makes no objection to government censorship and propaganda in the entertainment industry, and upholds the Chinese system as one to be envied by its Western counterparts:

Beijing has a very clear idea of how a film industry should operate — namely, as an essential part of the effort to bring public opinion in alignment with the party’s ideological worldview.

In effect, and as identified by FAIR, this is a call for Hollywood to make more pro-US propaganda, and for the US government to get even more involved in films and TV than they already are.

To be clear — I am opposed to all political censorship, whether it be in news coverage, a Transformers movie or anything else. I do not agree with China’s government determining what that country’s citizens can and cannot watch on political grounds. Censoring films on the basis of protecting children from the worst of our world is another matter — and is work which most countries employ an organisation to undertake.

Bayles offers only a handful of recent examples where the Chinese government has produced outright propaganda films — The Great Wall (a US co-production starring Matt Damon), Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea. She decries the American talent involved in producing these movies, arguing:

By propaganda, I do not mean lavish epics about sexy female wuxia warriors, or animated features with cute pandas and white-whiskered sages under blossoming plum trees. I mean bloody, ultra-violent action flicks, in which heroic, righteous Chinese soldiers kick some serious ass, including cowardly, decadent American ass, in exotic foreign places that are clearly in need of Xi Jinping Thought…

[Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea] are also quite explicitly anti-American, which should be a clue to Hollywood veterans that their interests as Americans are not well aligned with those of Beijing.

As a counter-point I offer The Last Ship, a bloody, ultra-violent action series, in which heroic, righteous American sailors kick some serious ass, including cowardly, decadent Chinese ass, in exotic foreign places that are clearly in need of additional US military bases.

The Last Ship is one of the most heavily military-supported TV shows of all time, with the Pentagon and the US Navy not just reviewing scripts and helping to write the treatment for the show, but also reviewing all marketing materials and running facebook livechats after each episode was broadcast, to help promote the show.

After viewing the pilot episode their reports commented:

Our key communication strategy and production’s end goal are clearly aligned.

This is just one of hundreds of recent film and TV productions that were supported by the US military. Ranging from quiz shows to cooking competitions, blockbusters to documentaries, sports broadcasts to comedies, the Pentagon are involved in every kind of screen entertainment. This frequently involves political censorship of content, usually in the pre-production phase.

And herein lies a key distinction — for the most part the Chinese censorship system only affects movies after they have been completed. A shot is removed here, the killing of a Chinese character there. Whereas the CIA, the Pentagon and the other branches of the US security state primarily affect films and TV before they go into production, giving them far greater influence over content.

Another key distinction is that the Chinese system mostly only affects the domestic films and versions of foreign films seen in China, by Chinese people. The US government system affects all versions of a much greater number of films, which are watched by hundreds of millions — possibly billions — of people worldwide.

So while China is producing tubthumping military propaganda in the form of Operation Red Sea and the other examples mentioned by Bayles, it is almost exclusively for a domestic audience, and hence isn’t a global expression of soft power. Whereas the US is producing a much larger number of products which are seen by more people outside of America than inside, often including the domestic Chinese audience. Their products dominate what the Air Force calls the ‘global entertainment environment’.

Claim #4 Assessment: Total Bullshit, unless you’re crazy and want to be propagandised even more than you already are.

Conclusion: Martha Bayles is Full of Shit and Doesn’t Know What the Fuck She is Talking About (Or Does She…?)

There are two principle conclusions we could draw from all this — either Bayles is a liar who is covering up for the US propaganda machine or she doesn’t know what the fuck she is talking about.

When it comes to China scholar Stan Rosen, who criticised Chinese investment in Hollywood and called for culture to be treated as a ‘national security issue’, I’m fairly certain he simply doesn’t know that Hollywood is, and always has been, treated as a national security issue.

Indeed, when we look at the list of the most popular films in China we can see how many were influenced by the US government and related American entertainment liaison offices. Aside from Avengers: Endgame the first American movie on the list is The Fate of the Furious, which was supported by the Pentagon. Furious 7 hired former State Department official and friend of the CIA Rich Klein as a consultant. Jurassic World was supported by NASA. Avengers: Age of Ultron, NASA and the Science and Entertainment Exchange. Mission: Impossible Fallout, the Pentagon. Transformers, the Pentagon. Avatar, the Pentagon.

In fact, almost all of the biggest American movies in China were produced with the help of the US government, primarily from the Pentagon who we know like to rewrite scripts for political reasons.

So Rosen is flat out wrong in what he’s saying, but he’s reflecting a general attitude whereby our efforts at cultural hegemony are ignored while their efforts are played up as powerful conspiracy to manipulate us through pop culture.

When it comes to Bayles I’m less convinced, particular when we note at the foot of her article that it is part of a series:

[S]upported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute.

In effect, she got paid by Charles Koch (a right wing nationalist) to write an article decrying those Chi-Coms for censoring our movies, and calling for a Hollywood arms race to produce more right wing nationalistic propaganda. The fact that she buried the Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood and totally ignored all the other government agencies suggests that this article itself is a piece of propaganda or political PR.

Bayles repeats the tired old myth that Hollywood is ‘deep blue’ i.e. Liberal Democrat and that they refuse to do anything that might be seen as pro-Trump.

But if that were true then the producers of Captain Marvel wouldn’t have toured Space Command and teamed up with the US Air Force to produce the film. The makers of Pitch Perfect 3 wouldn’t have turned their movie into a military recruitment commercial. 12 Strong, The 15:17 to Paris, First Man and The Long Road Home wouldn’t have earned wide releases and large marketing budgets. And the Navy wouldn’t have reviewed the scripts for several hundred episodes of NCIS, rewriting them at will to suit their agendas.

The truth is that Hollywood is one of the most pro-military institutions on earth, and it makes no difference who is in the White House, they continue to acquiesce to the Pentagon, the CIA, FBI, DEA and all the other government agencies working in the industry. They glamourise torture, promote war, camouflage military mental illness and sexual assault, deny mass surveillance, excuse police murder and cover up war crimes.

All while making you laugh and cry, so you don’t notice it.

In short, Bayles’ article is one of the worst examples of nationalistic PR masquerading as public information, and one of the most pathetic excuses for journalism, that I have ever read. I believe she wilfully and knowingly deceived her audience and if she didn’t then the best thing you can say about her is that she is shockingly ignorant of her field.

Tom Secker is a journalist and author who specialises in government involvement in the entertainment industry. He has been using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain unique government documents on Hollywood since 2014. His most recent book is National Security Cinema, you can find more of his work via his site Spy Culture.

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