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China’s iron grip on Hollywood began in 1998 with a Martin Scorsese movie and a groveling apology form Disney

  • It’s well documented that Hollywood self-censors to avoid offending the Chinese Communist Party.
  • But what’s less talked about is how it all started. 
  • When Disney’s CEO in 1998 apologized for releasing Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” a line was drawn.
  • Never again would Hollywood tackle political issues that make the Chinese dictatorship uncomfortable.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

It’s widely accepted that Hollywood will not produce movies that upset the Chinese Communist Party. The reasons are obvious.

The box office from China’s moviegoing market is poised to overtake the US’s as the largest in the world. And Hollywood is owned and operated by naturally risk-averse corporations focused on the bottom line.

That the movie industry sometimes produces culturally significant art is mostly an ancillary benefit. What matters for these businesses is constant growth, fueled by blockbusters.

The Chinese government has, over the past two decades, made it clear that it will blacklist actors, filmmakers, and corporations involved with films that depict China unflatteringly. Ask Brad Pitt, who, after starring in 1997’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” was essentially barred from entering China for almost 20 years.

It’s undeniable that “Hollywood” — defined here as the movie and television entertainment industry — has been brought to heel by the CCP. It’s led to films being radically edited, sometimes to absurd effect.

But China’s more consequential grip on Hollywood is reflected in a form of self-censorship, the preemptive avoidance of producing content that might upset the genocidal dictatorship’s propaganda ministers.

Hollywood’s institutionalized supplicance to the CCP didn’t happen overnight. We can point to the moment when the status quo began, the seminal event when filmmakers’ artistic expression was surrendered in an act of corporate cowardice.

It was 1998, when Disney boss Michael Eisner apologized to his “friends” in the Chinese Communist Party. His supposed offense? Disney’s release of the 1997 film “Kundun,” a meditative biopic of the 14th Dalai Lama, directed by one of the most revered filmmakers of all time, Martin Scorsese.

China’s called the shots in Hollywood ever since.

A master filmmaker, Buddhism, and Chairman Mao

Scorsese’s name evokes imagery of gangsters, urban decay, and toxic Italian American masculinity. But as a former altar boy who considered joining the priesthood, Scorsese’s fascination with religion is evident in much of his filmmaking — especially beyond his gangster classics. He’s even made an unofficial trilogy of films about people on a religious quest, which, along with “Kundun,” included 1987’s “Last Temptation of Christ” and 2016’s “Silence.”

“Kundun” depicts the Dalai Lama’s life from the age of 4, when he was “discovered” by Buddhist monks as the reincarnated leader of Tibetan Buddhism, through his young adulthood as communist China ravaged a helpless Tibet, and up until his journey through the Himalayas to exile in India in 1959.

Although the scenes of violence are brief and muted, the horrors are devastating. Tibetan children are forced by Chinese soldiers to shoot their parents, monks and nuns are made to copulate in the streets, and Chinese jets wantonly bomb Tibetan civilians. These all happen either off screen or over mere seconds of screen time.

It’s no surprise the CCP would not appreciate a historically accurate depiction of its devastation of Tibet. But it’s the scene depicting the Dalai Lama’s last in-person meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong that’s both the turning point of the film and the turning point of China’s relationship with Hollywood.

After the Dalai Lama expresses hope that communism and Buddhism can coexist, Mao pointedly tells him: “Religion is poison. Like a poison, it weakens the race. Like a drug, it retards the mind of people and society. It is the opiate of the people. Tibet has been poisoned by religion, and your people are poisoned and inferior.”

While the film was in production, the Chinese government indicated Disney’s business interests in China would suffer if “Kundun” was released. It was a novel threat at the time since the Chinese movie market was still in its infancy.

China had long forbidden Western movies from its cinemas, yet its people had grown bored with decades of boring propaganda films. By the mid-’90s, the CCP cautiously allowed some Hollywood films to screen within its borders, and the response was immediate: The people loved it. 

Eisner — credited with taking the company from a wildly popular family entertainment franchise to the fearsome international conglomerate it is today — initially publicly defended the film. The move “earned Eisner plaudits in Hollywood for standing up for freedom of expression,” James B. Stewart writes in “Disney War.”

This supposedly brave stance in defiance of the dictatorship wouldn’t last long. Hollywood was making inroads with China, and soon made it clear it would not impose a moral compass on the economic relationship between them.

Richard Gere, Martin Scorsese, the Dalai Lama, Melissa Matheson

“Kundun” director Martin Scorsese with the Dalai Lama.


MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images



The mouse that roared sold out

Eisner never wanted to make “Kundun,” having found the script boring, and “he couldn’t have cared less about striking a blow against Tibetan Buddhist oppression,” Stewart writes.

The chief executive of Disney had big dreams of opening theme parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, but he was stuck with “Kundun” and the cost of its $28 million production budget due to a power struggle with a since ousted executive. Eisner wasn’t going to let Scorsese’s decidedly noncommercial film jeopardize the company’s financial ambitions.

So Eisner hired Henry Kissinger — yes, that Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state accused by critics of committing war crimes — as the company’s emissary to China.

Kissinger was tasked with working behind the scenes to assure the Chinese government that Disney wouldn’t promote “Kundun” and it would “die a quiet death.” (The film bombed at the box office on its release, but still snagged four Academy Award nominations.)

According to a transcript of an April 1998 interview with the UK’s Radio Times, Scorsese gently criticized Disney for failing to “push the picture.” Clearly understanding the rules of the game, the director speculated that China’s “enormous” market was too big a prize to gamble on a small art film.

Eisner, in October 1998, dropped all his earlier pretenses of defending artistic expression when he went to China and groveled before Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier.

“The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it,” Eisner reportedly said of “Kundun.” Offering a formal apology, Eisner referred to the film as a “mistake,” adding: “In the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”

Kissinger’s corporate-dictatorship diplomacy, combined with Eisner’s pathetic mea culpa, seemed to do the trick. After spending 1998 in the CCP’s doghouse, Disney’s animated film “Mulan” was allowed to be screened in China in 1999. 

And though Eisner retired from Disney in 2005, “Kundun” remains effectively buried. You can buy a DVD or Blu-ray of the film on Amazon, but you can’t stream it on Disney+. For that matter, you can’t watch “Kundun” on any streaming service.

As Eisner hoped, it died a quiet death.

There was no precedent for this, a major Hollywood corporation literally disavowing one of its own films because it offended the CCP. That “Kundun” was made by a legendary director, and that the apology came from the boss of such a formidable entertainment company, demonstrated that Hollywood would accept that the CCP was in charge of drawing the line in the sand.

Ever since, Hollywood has bent over backward to keep from upsetting the Chinese government.

Hollywood loves to get political — but won’t touch stories about China’s human-rights record

The China of 1998 at least paid lip service to the international community that it was inching toward reforming its totalitarian system. Now, in 2021, China’s forcibly sterilizing Uyghur Muslim women and locking up almost a million people in labor and “reeducation” camps. And the world’s done next to nothing about it.

The CCP has also audaciously ended Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” experiment in semiautonomous democracy, having done away with basic civil liberties and crushed dissent — including what was once a free press. 

China has grown increasingly brazen with regard to Taiwan, the island democratic republic that the CCP considers a breakaway province.

Compared to these geopolitical crises, China’s ascendancy over Hollywood was relatively easy. All it took was a mildly controversial historical drama that upset plans for an East Asian Disneyland. Michael Eisner — a titan of American industry — made it clear in short order that Hollywood knew who its boss was.

A 2020 report by PEN America — titled “Made in America, Censored by Beijing” — illustrates the extent to which Hollywood allows itself to be censored by China. It also demonstrates how chilling this status quo is for artistic expression and political dissent around the world.

The report, based on years of research and interviews with Hollywood professionals and creatives, details how the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party (aka the Central Propaganda Department) enforces the country’s laws forbidding films that “endanger national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.”

It means no films about Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, which the CCP considers a threat to national unity. And no films about Taiwan (sovereignty) or the Uyghurs (territorial integrity). And then there are the films that Hollywood companies agreed to edit after the fact, acceding to the Chinese government censors.

The 2012 remake of the campy Cold War film “Red Dawn” saw its Chinese army bad guys digitally altered to become North Korean. China also didn’t appreciate 2013’s “World War Z,” in which a zombie-creating virus originates in China, so the studio cut references to China out of the film.

And yet even with the edits, China refused to allow either “Red Dawn” or “World War Z” to be screened in its theaters. It’s why Chinese censorship is a threat to free expression in “free” countries such as the US.

And capitulations to the CCP, like John Cena’s apology to China for offhandedly referring to Taiwan as “a country,” are pathetic.

China-fearing corporate cowardice isn’t limited to Hollywood, as evidenced by the most socially conscious of North American sports leagues, the NBA — and some of its politically outspoken superstars like Lebron James — bending over backward to apologize for ex-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s retweet in support of Hong Kong demonstrators.

But the plain fact that Hollywood — for all its self-congratulatory social-justice posing — will not dare to address the economic superpower’s horrendous human-rights record and aggression toward its neighbors. It has essentially become a soft propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party.

“If prominent Hollywood studios or filmmakers fear to push back against such influence, there is less chance that others around the world will dare to do so,” the authors of the PEN report wrote.

The authors added that China’s corporate censorship “renders filmmakers unable to criticize the decisions of a government that regulates the lives of over 1.4 billion people and that increasingly dominates the global conversation. There are stories about China that deserve to be told, but the space to tell such stories is rapidly diminishing in Hollywood.”

Even independent filmmakers working outside the studio system largely have to play by Hollywood’s rules if they want their films to be seen, as they are almost entirely beholden to mainstream distributors who also don’t want to run afoul of China.

It’s why Hollywood’s acquiescence to the Chinese bears much more consequence. Storytelling matters, and truly great films have the ability to change the way we think about justice, history, and the world.

Hollywood loves to stick its finger in the eye of American institutions — sometimes producing powerful films that hold corporations, the military, and the government accountable for their sins. The use of art to demand accountability is accepted as a good thing for society.

But for the price of theme parks and box-office tallies, a whole lot of vital stories will never be told.

China is a major player on the world’s stage, whose influence economically, culturally, and militarily expands far beyond its own borders. By tacitly granting the CCP veto power over art that makes it uncomfortable, Hollywood sold out its own ideals and demonstrated that American institutions can be bought fairly cheaply. 

Hollywood benefits financially from its relationship with China, but free expression suffers.

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