Worried About the Chinese Taking Over Hollywood? It’s all Propaganda Now!

We have a new “red scare” in Hollywood:

The latest salvo came in a letter from 16 members of Congress last week, which called for closer scrutiny of Chinese investment in the U.S. entertainment and media sectors. The letter cited the Dalian Wanda Group’s acquisitions of Legendary Entertainment, AMC and Carmike Cinemas, and warned of “growing concerns” of Chinese efforts to exert “propaganda controls on American media.”

I hate to break the news to my fellow Republicans, but Hollywood has done “anti-right propaganda” for a long time, and we’ve just sat there and taken it.  Ever wonder why the supposedly “irrefutable” conservative principles that should have “taken over” American politics are going nowhere?  Even our own party pitched all the movement conservatives for Donald Trump.  Much of our problem stems from the propaganda–one based on their own idea–that Hollywood has spewed out for years.

Now you’re worried about the Chinese taking over the place.  Give me a break–we’ve borrowed from them for years to pay for these imports, the dollars have to come back in one way or another.  Acquisitions are the logical way, we saw this with the Japanese thirty years ago.

From a Christian perspective, what we have is two governments–or more precisely two ruling elites–that don’t have any use for us.  The difference is that the Chinese are having second thoughts, and in the meanwhile their churches are growing.  Not electing Hillary Clinton will help, but not as much as some people are saying.  What we’re up against is a ruling élite with a very narrow life agenda and we’re in the way.

Today we have many people running around looking for the next war or enemy to keep us on top.  We need to spend more time addressing our internal weaknesses and not on fighting a group of people who might want to change Hollywood’s propaganda from one form to another.

8 thoughts on “Worried About the Chinese Taking Over Hollywood? It’s all Propaganda Now!”

  1. Oh, man. Where to begin with this?

    I’ve actually worked in the film business, and I know dozens of people in the belly of the beast there right now. In fact, I had a long conversation about this very topic recently with someone who works in the China department at a major studio. This person, a Bernie supporter and person of color, was arguing that Chinese censorship was good because it forced white people to cast more minorities. That the Chinese government is not run by progressives but by authoritarians who use film to promote the Chinese Communist Party’s social image and control made no difference to my lefty friend. That the Chinese government censors ethnic actors (the uproar over casting Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan guru blamed white studio heads whose Tibetan first choice was vetoed by the Chinese government) also didn’t register. That the Chinese have totally unfair trade practices in restricting the number of foreign films allowed to screen in China made no difference either. My appalled takeaway from the conversation was that we in this country are so polarized and short-sightedly self-focused that some would prefer the novelty of foreign rule and influence to American self-determination. Now you’re expressing a similar preference from the other side of the aisle by being indifferent between Chinese and American control of Hollywood.

    Problem number one with that preference is its disloyalty to America and a loyal American industry. Hollywood’s output is definitely biased towards the left, but it doesn’t put out deliberate propaganda. That is to say, filmmakers may generally express liberal politics, liberal *American* politics, but studios don’t coordinate systemically to generate intentional propaganda. As a result there are some major conservative voices in Hollywood, including Clint Eastwood, Jerry Bruckheimer, Arnold Schwarzenegger and historically Ronald Reagan. Generally, speaking studio heads adhere to Louis Mayer’s dictum, “when I want to send a message, I’ll write a telegram.” Instead, the focus is more on selling tickets. That’s why the oh-so liberal Hollywood puts out dozens of borderline fascist cop shows every year and billions of hours of work glamorizing guns. Hollywood is roughly as conservative Christian as the marketplace. Witness the limited success of the Christian niche.
    The major exception to the propaganda rule is World War II when the industry was a huge part of the war effort… on behalf of America, against the Axis. From selling war bonds, putting on USO shows, to joining the Army and making actual Army films, Hollywood turned up in full force when the chips were really down.
    And Hollywood leftism whatever its intellectual merits is at least well within American rights to self expression. I would argue that it’s also earned in some way. It’s quite Jewish in part because of historic anti-semitism forcing ambitious Jews out of many industries and into entertainment. It’s economically liberal because artistic careers are often unstable and risky. And it’s individualistic because of the humanistic nature of drama since Shakespeare.

    Problem two is that conflating Hollywood with “ruling elites” is grossly misleading. Go to any studio. You will find a preferred parking lot near the bungalows with some BMW’s, maybe an Aston Martin, and the remaining 50% Honda Accords, Prius’s, and other fine but not luxury cars. Then go onto the much larger non-preferred lots where you will find very few luxury cars at all. That’s because the vast majority of Hollywood workers are basically middle or working class. For every A-list actor, there are a dozen gaffers, a dozen camera operators, two dozen animators, five sound engineers, two accountants and a contract lawyer, etc. These people actually make something–America’s second largest export behind the defense industry. Don’t blame the trade deficit on Hollywood.
    Of course, there are elites, but again, they are not as coordinated as people think. If you pay attention to talk shows, you will note the number of times some A-lister talks about just meeting some other A-lister for the first time. Other than the Oscars, all the little (elite) tribes are mostly scattered around the world. Senior agents and studio people are know each other, of course, but they are all competing against one another. More to the point, the elite of Hollywood are quite different from those in the Hamptons, Georgetown, Silicon Valley, or Palm Beach dozens of years ago. Hollywood people are not meritocrats. They don’t tend to come from elite schools. They are huge risk takers and very independent. Show people are still hustlers. Spielberg, Di Caprio, Bruckheimer, like a huge number of creatives, came from broken homes and non-elite families.

    Problem three is that precisely by falsely lumping Hollywood into one monolithic entity you’ve missed a key to Chinese control. The Chinese pit studios against each other. They say, “we’re going to allow only a handful of movies into our enormous domestic market so make sure not only that you don’t violate our principles but also that you promote the benevolence and strength of the Chinese government.” Alternately, they force American firms to bring in Chinese co-production partners who steal techniques and technology while exhorting even greater artistic control. Did you see _The Martian_ last year? Huge pro-STEM movie, huge hit. Was the salvation via technology and multi-ethnic team coming together stuff a little heavy handed and liberal? Sure. But then what was jarring? Having the Chinese government show up out of nowhere to save the day. That was real propaganda–deliberate, state sponsored ideology without craft or nuance.

    Problem four is that by conflating liberal movies with propaganda one misses real art. Maybe, you don’t like _Apocalypse Now_ or _Born on the Forth of July_ or last year’s _Sicario_. All of those movies question our government’s integrity and goals in liberal ways, but they’re also beautifully crafted, richly complex, and ambiguous. It would be a betrayal of our country’s popular art form and aesthetic inheritance to open films like that up to the kind of authorial forces that gave us the blandly heroic Chinese army at the end of the last Transformers movie. I guess I’d take that over some gay agitprop ABC comedy, but that’s not the choice. The choice is between American distribution of a great, subversive Chinese movie like _A Touch of Sin_ (basically rescued by Cannes) and early Ridley Scott like _Alien_ or no subversive Chinese movie and Ridley Scott infected by agitprop, e.g. _The Martian_. Wanda’s not going to censor _Modern Family_.

    Maybe West Coast Jews and the CCP don’t have much use for Christian theology or conservative political thought. But even an arch-liberal like Oliver Stone still needs America. He needs America customers, American workers, and American ideas for inspiration and freedom of expression. The CCP needs Hollywood to take the stink off oppression and promote Chinese prestige. That’s not to say that the Chinese don’t make some great movies or that I blame their businessmen for trying to expand or that I think there should be no Chinese investment in LA. It is to say that we should recognize that part of the CCP’s insidious strategy for control involves pitting us against each other. If their government is manipulating our film companies, then our government would be wise to protect the machinery of free American expression. It’s one thing when Chinese and American firms compete or produce different products. It’s another thing entirely when a foreign government tries to dictate the terms of American industry.

    1. I think there are a few things that bear repeating or restating.

      First, it is unreasonable for this country to have run the gargantuan trade deficits it has over the years with China and then complain when the Chinese want to repatriate the money they’ve accumulated. We should have thought of this before we ran the deficits. And it’s not just Chinese firms “dumping cheap stuff” on our markets; that includes social darlings like Apple, with the sorry labour conditions to boot.

      Second, you don’t need an authoritarian structure to have a propaganda machine. All you need is a group of people who basically think alike and have the means to get their idea out. We just went back and forth on the “new vs. old” way of getting people to do things. Our people do it the “new” way, the Chinese supposedly do it the “old way,” although anyone who’s had any contact with these people know that social pressure is very much a part of the Chinese way too. We can see this with our news media; no one says that our government tells the news media what to say (although they try to spin stuff all the time) but the message is what it is. Hollywood is no different in this regard. The conservative presence you mention is definitely a minority position there. The political involvement patterns speak for themselves. As far as being risk takers is concerned, the large number of remakes out there tells me that they’re hedging their bets these days.

      As an aside, your characterisation of the elite of Palm Beach (and elsewhere) as “meritocrats” is rich. I grew up there. We’ve had this discussion before.

      Third, loyalty is a two-way street. Our elites of all stripes hold most of our people in contempt; it’s only now that the latter have figured that out, and that’s why we’ve got Donald Trump (who may be throwing Hollywood a curve.) For a country to work well, and especially one like ours, both ends of the social spectrum have to have each other’s back. That’s not the case these days. As far as Christians are concerned, from a Biblical perspective (particularly the NT) American Christians have too much invested in this place in many ways. The best known Plan B to this is Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” I’m not convinced it’s the total answer but it’s a start.

      The Chinese will discover that their idea of propaganda will fall flat in this market unless they’re a lot cleverer at doing it than they’ve been in the past. They are certainly capable of putting out movies with nuance; I saw The True Story of Ah Q (based on Lu Xun’s short story) and that was a delight. And your friend will discover sooner or later that the Chinese approach to race relations isn’t the dream come true he thinks it is.

      Bringing up Lu Xun reminds me to address the issue of Chinese controls over American film makers in China. The seminal moment in his life was when his Japanese biology teachers showed slides from the Russo-Japanese War; one of them showed the Japanese executing Chinese who spied for the Russians. Many other Chinese were just standing around watching the show. Lu concluded that a people who could just stand around didn’t have enough pride in themselves to amount to anything. Perhaps our people need to have a little more pride in themselves and what they stand for if they come home and expect the rest of us to do the same.

      If the Republicans in Congress really want to deal with the issue of foreign investment of any kind effectively, they should start by repealing white elephants such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank and simplifying our tax and regulatory structure so Americans can actually invest and grow businesses in the public equity sphere without fear of ending up in Club Fed. That was the genius of Ronald Reagan; he understood that defeating the USSR didn’t just mean a military buildup (although he did that) but that our strength has been our economy. Letting us drift into being the sick man of North America and then slapping controls on Chinese investment when it doesn’t suit us isn’t going to get the job done.

  2. I think we’re talking about different things here. Your position emphasizes foreign investment; I’m reacting against unfair trade practices.

    I understand (or used to) how balance of trade payments are accounting identities that must balance out. Huge trade deficits entail huge cash inflows/foreign investment and vice versa. I get that the American-Chinese trade deficit encouraged the pre-2008 credit bubble/global savings glut.

    But our government can be smart about foreign investment or not. We restrict (probably inadequately) foreign governments’ ability to lobby Washington. We don’t let foreign powers buy American defense contractors or critical infrastructure. A key bone of contention in the _Variety_ article linked to above is whether or not media companies should qualify as strategically important, as American soft power. The debate in Congress is not over capital controls, over banning Chinese investment. The debate is over the scope of restrictions on foreign investment. Everyone agrees that Chinese investment should be permitted but with restrictions of some kind.

    The Chinese government places huge restrictions on Americans’ ability to sell movies in China. These restrictions hurt American profits and worsen the trade deficit. They also ensure that the handful of movies that make it through to the mainland are pro-Chinese government. Since those movies are international blockbusters like _The Martian_, it means that your kids/grandkids grow up watching Iron Man collaborate with an oppressive regime. If opposing that indoctrination means hypocrisy so be it. We’re dealing with capitalist Communists. There’s going to be some irony and adjustments over time. If Congress reverses a bad policy, that’s learning not hypocrisy in my book. I don’t think it “unreasonable” to place small to moderate restrictions on Chinese capital when they place huge restrictions on American imports AND capital. (My friend’s office is having a nightmare getting money into China this week on a co-production.) Nineteenth century Britain was open to closed regimes, but my limited understanding of modern trade theory is that unrestricted free trade with protectionist regimes can be exploitative. Personally, I would prefer an open America to trade with an open China. I love free trade. But that’s not the world we live in.
    ***

    There’s a moral and practical difference between speech that is freely chosen and home grown versus that which is structured by a foreign government. Did I watch _50 Shades of Grey_? No. I suspect it’s immoral and pretty stupid. But it’s a free country and I accept the right of liberals to make liberal movies. There is no issue with fairness or disloyalty there. On the other hand, _The Martian was unfairly manipulated by Chinese import restrictions to portray a potentially hostile to America regime favorably. We can go back and forth on the semantics of propaganda. But I think the key issue is one of Chinese state coercion versus Hollywood politics. Hollywood tolerates a greater diversity of opinion. It was free from the bluntness and power of state actors before North Korea hacked Sony and the Chinese strategy.

    It’s easy to sit in TN and criticize Hollywood as elitist and disloyal to America. In the pre-internet days, one could sit on his porch and opine on distant people. Your misfortune is that someone like me who lived in LA for five years and actually has IMDB credits will be inflamed by this! My first month in LA I went to an informal talk at Universal given by Neil Moritz who produced _The Fast and the Furious_ movies along with dozens of other studio movies and TV shows. He spoke about the importance of staying in touch with moviegoers. I’ll never forget how he talked about how he always goes to Walmart to talk to people and take their pulse whenever he goes to visit his in-laws in Louisiana. I don’t think he’s unique in that way. The industry spends a huge amount of money on test screening and social media/market research. It’s hyper-responsive to what sells (other than Oscar bait). It’s a popular medium. Everyone’s trying to find the next popular phenomenon.

    Look, I should stop ranting here, but please, understand that my limited but real experience of the place doesn’t vibe with your portrayal of it. Hollywood is weird, shrouded in self-mythology, and very often misunderstood, but its whole relationship to the public is very different from say Wall Street’s. I’m not saying the Palm Beach was full of meritocrats; I get that it was more dynastic and WASPy. But it’s false to say that Hollywood is elitist in the way of Palm Beach in the 70’s or DC or Wall Street, which have their differences and commonalities too. Certainly the kind of contempt for the intelligence of masses found in DC and NYC (which in my experience is normally prefaced by an accurate description of a common misconception) doesn’t really fly the same way in LA. Does the head of production at Sony think she has better taste than the average American? Absolutely, but she’s also spent a huge amount of time thinking about taste, visual design, aesthetics, etc. That she’s well paid reflects the paucity of people who do what she does anywhere near as well. And at the end of the day, she’s into a bunch of what she releases. I know a bunch of people at Marvel, and they all love comic books. Most of them are Democrats too who drive nice cars, but they’re all loyal Americans. I’m not accusing you of falling off into Sarah Palin territory of implying that small town, white Americans are “real Americans” and everyone else is some sort of squishy traitor or second class citizen. But I think it’s important to note that some liberal lesbian in West Hollywood has the same citizenship rights as a guy in Kansas whom I might sympathize with more politically. Honestly, I don’t know what you mean by elite disloyalty in Hollywood unless you think liberals are unAmerican or the whole place is totally in the hands of the transnational capitalist class. Is that it?

    I agree that Congress could simplify regulations, but so long as Americans want to buy labor intensive products cheaply, we’re going to get them from what used to be called “periphery” economies, i.e. low-wage places still urbanizing peasants. The trade deficit arouse not because the American economy was insufficiently financialized by excess regulation. The American economy became excessively financialized because we lack coherent trade and industrial policy to help exporters… like Hollywood. When Detroit began losing out to Germany and Japan in the 70’s, that’s when trade deficits and financialization took off. The two are linked as you know by the flow of capitol into the US. Not accidentally, the 80’s were the age of financial deregulation as financial services gained economic and political power. I think Volker and Reagan probably had no choice but to accept the huge capital inflows driving financialization, but by the 90’s we lost all discernment and much regulation about what to do with money coming in, which lead to a more damaging asset bubble with perverse incentives. But that’s another story.

    1. You’re right, we’re definitely looking at this differently.

      One major difference is how we look at Hollywood as an American asset to start with. You seem to think that Hollywood is “critical infrastructure.” I don’t. In fact, I think that a lot of the trouble we’ve gotten into is due to the clash of our Hollywood exports with value systems in different parts of the world. Every film, no matter what its artistic merits (or lack thereof) have some kind of value system, good, bad or indifferent, attached to them. Do I think our government should censor films to placate foreign values? Of course not. We went through a lot of censorship during the first “Red Scare” of the 1950’s and Hollywood has bitterly resented it ever since. The rest of the left picked up on that (and other suppressions of the McCarthy Era) and that’s why they hated Richard Nixon so much. Bringing him down was the left’s major triumph of the 1970’s (and Hillary Clinton was involved with that); the fact that they dropped the ball after that gave the right an opening, and Ronald Reagan took it.

      You are also in dialogue with someone who actually did business with the Chinese, albeit a long time ago. China has never been an easy market to penetrate. Americans have this naive idea that every place in the world should have the same legal and social structure as we do. That’s not the case, we have to deal with that as we find it. Personally, as someone who exported a third of his company’s output and tried to make up for the trade deficits this country has run since the 1960’s, I think that most of the trade agreements (and they’re now getting pushback from across the political spectrum) are designed so that the stupid can do international commerce.

      But, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, a small industrialist’s lot in the U.S. is not a happy one, especially in my working career. To start with, in the 1960’s people in industry were portrayed as materialistic phonies who wounded the environment, and today people who drank that ideal are at the top of our society. Small business have never had the support for export that their counterparts in other places have, we were certainly aware of that. But small business people have never been held in the contempt they are by the Third Ward types quite like they are now either. And the regulatory burden imposed by our government falls harder on small businesses than it does on larger ones, who use their lobbying leverage as a game to write regulations to their own advantage.

      In response to the 1960’s, my contemporaries went more for the arts, social sciences, law or business. They left STEM behind; until the computer came into public usage being a nerd was no fun. That created a vacuum which has been filled by foreign born people, and the Chinese are well represented in those fields. You may find populating English classes heartening (you have in the past,) but we have a legitimate national security problem here, one that occupies our security services and should be higher on members of Congress’ priority list than Hollywood. The only way to fix this problem is to encourage more people born here to go into STEM, but I think the current efforts may be too little, too late, and not well thought out.

      At this point I just don’t see Hollywood as being part of our “critical infrastructure,” which is why I thought the members’ letter about it was a waste of time. If Hollywood, who went through the first “Red Scare” censorship time and came out by breaking the censorship, turns around and succumbs to the second one, they deserve what they get.

  3. Media is a little less than 4% of the US economy. It generated about $630b in 2015, which is almost 3X the state economy of Tennessee. And the arts/media employ about 2m people in the US. The current US market capitalization of the media sub-sector of discretionary consumer goods is $983.62 billion. I consider $983,620,000,000 to be an “asset.” That includes advertising and publishing, but we’re still talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in market cap for film and TV. So entertainment isn’t the biggest sector, but it is bigger than mining and educational services. And a $10 movie ticket can change one’s life. I probably spend more money on energy than movies, but the intangible value of the culture industry is way more meaningful to me. I doubt that’s unique. Maybe, you resent all of this or you don’t think it’s worth fighting for. The Chinese and US governments disagree with that assessment. During WWII, the army signal corps had combat motion picture units run by Hollywood directors. To this day, the Defense Department has teams of public affairs officers who provide Hollywood with equipment and promotional information. The Air Force has had an information warfare division since the 80’s that’s tasked with jamming enemy radio and TV. In any invasion or coup, attackers go for broadcasters right after they hit SAM sites, government offices, and the power grid. All of which is to say that states recognize the idealogical “soft power” of mass media. God knows how many Ph.D theses have been written on this!

    I happen to believe that Congress with its staff of thousands can spare a few hearings trying to preserve the institutional space for freedom of expression and still work on other problems.

    I’m genuinely sorry that small industrialists have been misunderstood or undervalued. But I don’t think that the errors of the past license neglecting the concerns of totally different Americans going forward. If I were a congressman and the dairy farmers had a problem, I wouldn’t categorically dismiss the concerns of the whole industry except maybe during war.

    If Hollywood succumbs to censorship this time around, it will be because its firms were forced to wrestle with a rich, wily state without domestic backing.

    Check out this especially on the links between the State Department and Motion Picture Association and also on free trade: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVEEoeREAB0

    1. If you’re right, Hollywood is in a “no win” position.

      If our government allows things to continue without intervention, the Chinese will take over and then they’ll put out Chinese propaganda.

      If our government does intervene, then sooner or later Hollywood will be come an extension of our government like the defence contractors, and then they’ll put out US government propaganda. One of the keys to American democracy is the fact that ownership and control of different segments of society are in different hands. Put another way, checks and balances don’t stop with the three branches of government. As an illustration, our government centre is in Washington, our financial centre is in New York (with some help from Chicago,) our entertainment and media centre is in Los Angeles (with some help from Nashville,) etc. In the UK, it’s all pretty much in greater London.

      I’m not one of these “It can’t happen here” types; it can. Like I said, it’s all propaganda now. One thing that needs to be considered is that, assuming that Hollywood has had a free hand up until now in putting out what it does (commercial constraints considered,) what kind of agenda would our government like it to pursue?

      As far as small businesses of any kind are concerned, our ability to start successful small businesses is on the wane. That’s a serious issue in an of itself. Every large concern started out as a small business, and that includes all of Hollywood’s studios. The ability to get around monopolies/propaganda machines would be greatly enhanced if businesses were easier to start and could give existing ones competition.

      Whole Food’s John Mackey stated that he could not start that business today and have it succeed. This is hardly a “right-wing” enterprise (unlike, say, Hobby Lobby.) Bring back a more dynamic economy and the Chinese will have some competition on their hands–and that includes the entertainment industry. Fail to do so and our economy will start to look like theirs.

  4. You raise a good point. If Hollywood becomes increasingly dependent on legal protection by the government, might the government assert more control over movies? That strikes me as possible, but given that Hollywood is already dependent upon patent protection and that we’re all dependent upon military protection, I don’t see government takeover as likely. Unlike defense contractors, Hollywood’s customers are private citizens.

    (I’m not opposed to all regulation. I get your point that overly complex rules benefit the wealthy; there was an article in the LA Times on how small to medium developers have been driven out of LA recently by a chaotic planning process that has devolved into fights at city hall between the deep pocketed. But I think we do need environmental, safety, banking stability, and anti-competitive regulations. If you believe Francis Fukuyama, a lot of problems that used to be settled by our administrative state and which are settled in Western Europe by the same, now spill over into the legal system. He thinks we need stronger regulators and fewer lawsuits. I’m not sure that’s a problem in Hollywood.)

    Also a good point about LA’s separation from DC. I think that’s true. US size is also important. Our industry doesn’t rely on state financing like in France or the UK. That gives them the opportunity for more high-brow stuff but they can also lose sight of the audience. The movie that fascinates me on this lately is _Timbuktu_, which I saw at a festival paid for by the French government and which had government financing, I believe. It’s a very subtle deflation of ISIS type grandiosity, basically making jihadis look like total losers. How much of that is propaganda versus an unique artistic vision?

    The other big variable is the Chinese. How independent will their film industry prove to be from their government? How much will their government continue to try to provide advantages to their industry? Do they want to develop their own cultural path or do they really just want to make American style action movies?

    Our government wants stuff like _Top Gun_ that helps military recruiting and _Zero Dark Thirty_ that justifies the war on terror. In the 50’s, they wanted to sell American prosperity and goodness against the commies. I’d say the social liberals don’t really have the government branches with enough money or the need to promote their vision

    Final thought: is it all still propaganda? The top 10 grossing films of 2016 are all animated or comic book movies. I haven’t seen most of them, but what could the propaganda of _Batman versus Superman_ be? That film is probably a little nihilistic, but a lot of that is just a stance or style. The people making movies in the studio system (which waxes and wanes relative to independent film) are subject to taboos against racism and in favor of inclusion. Many have a fairly gnostic worldview. But to me that feels a lot like bottom-up expression of the collective unconscious, mimicry, and commercial imperatives. Rather than anything top-down.

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