American self-censorship – The New York Times
American self-censorship – The New York Times

American self-censorship – The New York Times

Before the Winter Olympics, Chinese officials warned athletes against speaking out on topics that put them in a bad light. Then Nancy Pelosi speaks told American athletes so as not to offend the Chinese authorities.

It was the latest sign that China’s campaign to stifle disagreement is succeeding in an important way: US institutions and companies are increasingly silencing themselves to avoid angering the Chinese government.

The professional wrestler and actor John Cena apologized, in Mandarin, last year to call Taiwan a country. In 2019, a Houston Rockets director apologized to tweet support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong after Chinese officials complained, and a top publisher of video games suspended an e-sports competitor who expressed support for the protests. The 2013 film “World War Z” var rewritten to clarify that its zombie-spawning virus does not originate from China.

Erich Schwartzel, the author of “Red Carpet,” which is about China’s relationship with Hollywood, told me that one number drives these decisions: 1.4 billion, China’s population.

American companies and institutions want access to this huge market. Given China’s authoritarian leadership, this means playing by the rules of the Chinese Communist Party – and in particular, avoiding criticism of its human rights violations. So cultural institutions that are influential bastions of American values ​​as free expression are now often absent in public conversations about China.

American sports and media have often displayed American values, even if they are clumsy or unfair. These cultural exports helped to spread democratic ideas internationally during the Cold War. Movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Selma,” which celebrates democracy, justice and equality, can change the way people see the world and how it works. Celebrities can force people to vote or get vaccinated or focus on neglected issues.

Censorship prevents these institutions from shedding light on China while its leaders suppress dissidents, crack down on democracy in Hong Kong, rally and detain ethnic Uighurs, and threaten war with Taiwan.

Asked about doing business in China in one interview with Times Opinion writer Kara Swisherformer Disney boss Bob Iger acknowledged the reality Hollywood is facing: “In the process, you’re not trying to compromise on what I would call values. But there are compromises that companies need to make in order to be global.”

A recent example of censorship appears in “Top Gun: Maverick,” which premieres in U.S. theaters this year. In the original 1986 film, Tom Cruise’s character, the American naval pilot Pete Mitchell, wore a jacket with stains of the Taiwanese and Japanese flags. In the upcoming sequel, those flags are gone.

Som Schwartzel reported, Chinese investors told filmmakers that the Taiwanese flag was a problem because China does not consider Taiwan independent. To play it safe, the leaders also removed the Japanese flag due to Japan’s own historical tensions with China.

Meanwhile, Chinese studios are getting better at making movies, and they are not afraid to take an anti-American stance. In 2017’s popular “Wolf Warrior 2”, the Chinese hero Leng Feng rescues African villagers from an American mercenary called Big Daddy, who proclaims the supremacy of his people moments before Leng wins and kills him.

The consequences are asymmetric. Chinese films proudly display the values ​​of their country, while American films remain silent about China – distorting messages that people hear, not only in the United States and China, but across the globe.

American films may even give the impression that China is better. In the 2014 film “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” U.S. officials were portrayed “in slightly flattering tones,” according to PEN America. The Chinese characters in the film, made with the support of the Chinese government, were more often selfless and heroic. Variety called the movie “an excellent patriotic movie if you happen to be Chinese.”

“Transformers” earned more than $ 1 billion at the box office – $ 300 million of that from China. From a business perspective, it was a success.

The attractiveness of censorship will grow as China’s economy, and therefore the potential market for US companies, also grows.

Some U.S. lawmakers have tried to solve the problem, but any change in US policy would most likely have little effect. The same free speech rights that politicians defend also make it difficult for them to tell Hollywood, the NBA or anyone else what to do.

Another question: The most striking and obvious examples of censorship have involved blatant interference by Chinese officials. But American companies more often do what Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch calls prejudicial self-censorship: “Before the idea of ​​a film is even devised, the first thing they have to think about is’ How can I make sure this film can be shown in China?'”

That kind of self-censorship is harder to detect – or do anything about.

Ultimately, U.S. institutions may have to make their own choice: Reject censorship or retain access to China. Right now, the desire for access is winning.

  • China’s censorship efforts is a part of Xi Jinping, the country’s supreme leader, seeks to support national nationalism.

  • “Friends” is the latest victim of censorship on China’s streaming platforms.

  • In a rare twist, it was the original ending of “Fight Club”. restored following an international backlash.

  • American academics say they feel, too increasing pressure to censor oneself when talking about China.

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