China Plays Media Power Games in Asia

The shadow of a new nationalism looms large over the country's neighbors

Zhang Yimou Matt Damon
Andy Wong/AP

The rise of nationalism in China has turned the country’s film industry into a riskier business and could damage the box office and popularity of mainland Chinese productions abroad.

Filmmakers who want to break into the Chinese market will be left with no choice but to remain politically correct, say industry players from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“Filmmaking is already risky, and making co-productions with China is now even more risky,” says Hong Kong-based critic and filmmaker Freddie Wong. “You never know when you’ll get into trouble.”

Mainland Chinese nationalists have been criticizing filmmakers and entertainers that they find politically offensive toward China, and their criticism of pro-democracy Hong Kong artists takes place against increasing tensions between the mainland and the former British colony.

Such political allegations rose to a new level this year. In January, Taiwanese Chou Tzu-yu, a member of K-pop girl group Twice, found herself embroiled in political controversy after she was criticized for waving the Taiwanese flag on a TV show. The teen idol was forced to make an apology by her Korean management company, JYP Entertainment, which caused an uproar in Taiwan.

In July, veteran Taiwanese actor Leon Dai was removed from Chinese film “No Other Love,” directed by Vicky Zhao Wei and backed by Alibaba Pictures Group, after he was accused of supporting Taiwan independence by China’s Communist Youth League.

In August, state-owned China Central Television reported that China’s broadcasting watchdog SARFT had banned Korean TV shows from airing beginning Sept. 1. Some film and TV production companies in the region told Variety that their plans for China-Korea co-productions have been shelved due to the uncertainties.

In the same month, in response to criticisms made by Taiwanese-American actress Constance Wu, Chinese director Zhang Yimou defended his decision to cast Matt Damon in his first English-language film, the $150 million production “The Great Wall” from Legendary and Universal.

Ting Chi-fang, associate professor at the motion picture department of the National Taiwan University of Arts, says mainland productions telling mainland stories are not appealing to audiences outside China. But he adds filmmakers from Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the number of productions was limited, have no choice but to venture to mainland China in order to tap deep-pocketed investors.

“They are now forced to be clear with their political stance,” Ting told Variety, adding that he knows a young Taiwanese filmmaker who was asked to sign a contract with a mainland company stating he would not talk about politics. He says the situation has dented certain foreign co-productions with the mainland.

Wong says mainland China is now full of political landmines, and filmmakers whose priorities are not making money will be weeded out. “If they are only following the money, they will have no choice but to kowtow to the mainland rules.”

Pictured above: Andy Lau, Matt Damon, Zhang Yimou, Jing Tian, and Pedro Pascal at a press event for “The Great Wall” in Beijing, July 2, 2015.