It is no coincidence – or a secret – that China is producing patriotic blockbusters that have overtaken Hollywood films at the Chinese box office in recent years. But it's not as explicit as Beijing giving orders. Instead, the government has shifted its approach from direct intervention to indirect incentives by shaping the economic conditions of the film industry to favor patriotic cinema. China's film industry has been a major expansion of the state since the country was founded in 1949. State studios dominated production until the 1990s when the state allowed private film companies to be set up to save the industry from financial collapse. In 1990 the director of the Department of Radio, Film and Television Department of Radio, Film and Television told the New York Times that the Chinese film industry was facing a "colossal" financial crisis due to the dominance of ideological party line films that few people actually wanted to watch.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has faced a compromise between economic liberalization and social control of the film industry, especially after the Tiananmen Uprising in 1989. The party rejected the opposition and pursued both – a balancing act that the Cross-industry Chinese development experiment.
State corporations were responsible for delivering patriotic productions, or "main melody films," which became compulsory for students during Jiang Zemin's patriotic awareness campaign in the 1990s. In the meantime, China opened its doors to Hollywood on a revenue-sharing basis in 1994, which accelerated the development of the domestic industry. To ward off unwanted foreign influence, the first official censorship system was introduced in 1996.
Just a year later, Disney, Columbia and MGM had blocked films in China thanks to films like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, which are believed to be biased against China. A memo from the then Ministry of Radio, Film and Television (today, after several name changes, the National Radio and Television Administration or NRTA) states: “In order to protect the national interests of China, it was decided that all business cooperation with them three companies will be temporarily suspended without exception. "
Every now and then, the Chinese authorities bring down a cleaver to send a resounding message. But most of the time, in the remarkable words of Professor Perry Link for East Asian Studies, the state acts as an “anaconda in a chandelier”. The giant snake doesn't move, but everyone in its shadow is afraid of provoking it.
As the industry developed, private film companies – not state studios – began to push the production of nationalist cinema. Two decades ago, party-approved news movies were seen as the cause of the industry's failure. As recently as 2013, three films celebrating communist soldier and propaganda icon Lei Feng flopped, despite government guidelines requiring cinemas to promote them. Far from being futile, the state stepped up its efforts to promote the marketable patriotic blockbuster. Patriotic news films are now paving the most reliable path to box office hit. A number of large budget patriotic films released in 2019 were, as one critic put it, "too red to fail" at the Chinese box office.
From public apologies to anti-corruption policies, the CCP has tightened the film industry using many of the same tools it uses to exert control over sectors and society. In 2018, the state called for "self-examination and self-correction" in the industry, demanding that film moguls cough up $ 1.7 billion to the government.
But there is a lot of gain for those in their turn. What does it mean to be "too red to fail"? The film authorities ensure that large box office revenues go to films that serve the interests of the state. Indirect censorship mechanisms become financial incentives for for-profit producers to create content that is successful in the state-designed economic environment. Such mechanisms have always existed, such as allowing patriotic film releases on major holidays, but were strengthened under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The people who run the Chinese film industry increasingly represent state interests. New restrictions on foreign investors are mitigating the outside influence that increased in the 2000s when the investment landscape had a relatively free flow of capital, technology, expertise, and ideas. Foreign investors have been prohibited from investing in film distribution companies and theater chains since 2011. The restrictions were further tightened by the 2015 Foreign Investment Act.
Meanwhile, members of the political elite, such as former Vice President Zeng Qinghong's brother and former President Jiang Zemin's son, have shared the enormous profits of the Chinese film industry, which is memorably dubbed the "new playground for princesses". Propaganda officials have reportedly asked their children to produce films that they approve. The CEO of Huayi Brothers – the first and best-known private film company – has pledged to "integrate the basic socialist values of the party … deeper into the lifeblood of the company" with the help of the CCP's newly formed Huayi Brothers Media Company Committee.
In the saturated Chinese film market (2,308 films were produced in 2019), the state influences the visibility – and thus also the profitability – of publications. Distribution is largely controlled by state-owned companies. Cinema managers work with government distributors to ensure optimal screening schedules are reserved for these films, while independent films may only secure 0.2 percent of national theaters.
In 2018, the then state administration for press, publication, radio, film and television, now NRTA, named 5,000 cinemas the “People's Theater Line” in order to receive subsidies for the showing of “main melodic films”. A leaked administrative policy in 2015 found that cinema chains were instructed to use "whatever means" to maximize box office returns on a propaganda war film and evoke "feelings of patriotism and national sentiment." State guidelines also ordered the media to praise patriotic films and prohibit coverage of films that are considered unpleasant. A sensitive film is not a threat if nobody sees it – not because it is forbidden, but because nobody knows about it.
Audiences seem to welcome and even prefer films with patriotic themes – although options are becoming increasingly limited and critical film websites are often blocked, it is difficult to gauge a real opinion. "It is fashionable to be patriotic," wrote a Chinese student on her blog while studying abroad. "I don't want to be the uncool person of my generation." Directors play with the reliable formula and drop social comments for patriotic fanfare. A cohort of aspiring directors like Peter Chan, Stephen Chow and John Wu has turned away from genre films that are globally attractive in order to produce films exclusively for the Chinese market.
Stars behind and in front of the camera follow and drive the trend. "Popular Chinese actors are converting in droves to red avatars that bring positive energy to audiences," an article in the state-run tabloid Global Times reported on the industry's patriotic overhaul. Celebrity actress Fan Bingbing posted a picture of a map of China including Taiwan and the “nine-dash line” on Weibo with the hashtag “China, not even a point can be missing”. Her apparent support for China's South China Sea territorial claims followed an apology after she was accused of tax evasion and disappeared from the public eye for three months in 2018.
This year has shown the state's near absolute control over an industry that is normally not at the forefront of discussions about unfair business and trade practices. Disney's highly anticipated live-action Mulan was coldly received in China, where the poem the film is based on was composed 1,500 years ago. Just like its animated predecessor in 1998, this year's Mulan fell far short of its box office predictions, which in turn was crippled by widespread piracy amid an onslaught of other charges from US and Chinese audiences alike.
Mulan may be the latest target in the clash between two superpowers, but many of its problems stem from features of the Chinese film industry that precede and outlast the present moment. In 2019, film star Liu Yifei declared her support for the Hong Kong police on Weibo, calling the pro-democracy demonstrations a "disgrace" for Hong Kong. Her comments – real or strategic – resulted in the hashtag #BoycottMulan, which reappeared last month when viewers rejected the film's endorsement from government agencies in Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities immediately banned the Mulan hashtag and ordered the media not to report on the release.
The state instead threw its weight behind The Eight Hundred, a Chinese war epic that was the first major film to be shown in theaters since COVID-19 caused month-long closings across the country. In June 2019, the film was withdrawn from the Shanghai International Film Festival a few minutes before its premiere in order to glorify the nationalist – not the communist – army in the final scene. At risk of losing its $ 80 million investment in the film, Huayi Brothers removed 13 minutes from the film, which granted its grand release this summer. It has also helped the company commit to "integrating the work of building parties into every aspect and step of the process of creating film and TV content."
If you come by on their terms, the authorities are usually ready to welcome you back in their good hands. When Disney was expelled from China in 1997, the entertainment titan apologized and urged then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to normalize relations for the second time – this time between the Magic Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom. "If you admit your mistakes under Chinese law, your sentence will be reduced," a Beijing film industry insider told the Washington Post in February 1999. "You have to confess." I think Disney did that. "
The government's deliberate jostling into the industry has not been without its setbacks. Following the tax fight in 2019, a group of prominent directors wrote in a letter, "We are extremely upset by some unfair public opinion stigmatizing the entire industry." Amid the June 2020 pandemic, the Vice President of Bona Film Group in Beijing died after he deciphered the government on social media for not supporting the wavering film industry. However, discord rarely lasts as business people agree to the hand-in-hand relationship that paves the way for their future success.
Propaganda is most effective when people waver in one direction but believe they got there on their own. Nationalism is most sustainable when it rises from below. The production of patriotic cinema is subject to a similar phenomenon: the producers do it and the audience sees it for themselves. A chorus of voices is replaced by a single melody.