Nonprofit PEN America on Wednesday issued a moral clarion call to Hollywood to step up its efforts to resist Chinese censorship and increase transparency, criticizing studios and the MPA for appearing to defend free speech at home only when financially convenient.
The New York-headquartered free speech advocacy group detailed the mechanisms by which China influences decision-making in Hollywood and offered recommendations for how to mitigate pernicious complicity with one of the world’s most censorship-prone regimes in an unsparing 100-page report entitled “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing.”
It comes as American politicians have recently turned up the heat on Hollywood on the matter amid rapidly deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China.
“The Chinese Communist Party is increasingly shaping what global audiences see,” said PEN America’s deputy director of free expression research and policy James Tager.
Changes, however small, to U.S. films made at Beijing’s behest “cut against artistic and cultural freedom, silence dissenting voices and can skew the global perceptions that are shaped by powerful films,” he said, and must be considered in the broader context of China’s policy goals, including “the repression and erasure of minority cultures, the burnishing of its global image, and the reification of government or the Party and President Xi Jinping.”
The report calls for a “more unified Hollywood response” to censorious pressure from China, stating that firms need not abandon the market to abide by their principles.
The document points out the hypocrisy of an industry celebrated for its vocal criticism of the U.S. government yet struck with an “increasing acceptance of the need to conform” with China’s, and describes the MPA’s advocacy on China to date “unsurprising but uninspiring.” It urges the Association and other key players to “make the same commitment to resisting censorship from governments around the world as they historically have to resisting censorship from our own.”
U.S. politicians like Senator Ted Cruz have been scratching their heads to come up with ways to force Hollywood to take a stronger stand against China, but proposed solutions have been largely pooh-poohed by industry players as unfeasible, lacking real teeth, and politically motivated.
PEN offered different, though less binding, recommendations, saying: “There is still room for Hollywood to adopt some principled strategies and practices to govern their interactions with the Chinese government.”
The nonprofit called on Hollywood studios to pledge that if they censor a film or alter it in anticipation of a censorship request from Beijing, they create two versions of the title so that the censored Chinese version does not become the default for global audiences. Chinese policy currently requires there to be only one version of officially co-produced films, but does not make requirements of other types of titles.
“Filmmakers cannot reduce their work to the lowest common denominator of only content that is deemed acceptable by one of the world’s most censorious regimes,” it said.
It also recommended that the major studios join forces to publicly and transparently acknowledge censorship requests received from foreign governments and changes made. It suggested publicizing them in the way tech firms issue reports on government take-down request, or potentially acknowledging them via disclosures in the credits.
“If all members of the Big Five jointly committed to such a disclosure program, it would immediately set the standard for Hollywood at large [and] prevent Beijing from playing studios against one another,” it said. Such transparency would go a long way towards making the long opaque processes of censorship more visible, providing a better understanding of where Beijing’s red lines are and thus reducing “the uncertainty that enables self-censorship.”
The reports hones in on the MPA for not doing more on the issue, highlighting a damning divergence between its rhetoric to protect U.S. filmmakers’ constitutional rights to free speech and its stance on China.
In 2016, when then-MPA head Chris Dodd took the stage to accept an award from Georgia’s First Amendment Foundation, he made a rousing speech on the organization’s mission.
“Whether it’s confronting tyrants abroad, speaking truth to power at home, or pushing the limits — and buttons — of our society’s tolerance and cultural understanding, motion pictures and television often dare to say the unspeakable. Which is why, since our founding in 1922, the MPAA has fought for the First Amendment rights of not only our moviemakers — and our moviegoers — but the audiences, as well,” it quotes him as saying.
The words stand in strong contrast with a 2013 statement the Association issued on Chinese censorship. On that topic, the body said that while it supported “maximum creative rights for artists,” the “adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognize China’s right to determine what content enters their country.”
The report calls on the MPA, which has never released public guidance on how studios could or should push back against Chinese censorship requests, to issue a public position paper on the matter, as well as an annual report on the industry’s engagement with China.
It also recommends that professional institutions and forums such as the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the American Film Market do more to draw public attention to the issue and create opportunities for insiders to discuss Chinese censorship transparently, possibly via private forums, listservs, or working groups.
To not deal more openly with the topic will deal a blow to the industry’s “credibility, moral standing and clout,” the advocacy group said.
“Hollywood possesses a hundred-plus-year legacy of serving as one of the world’s storytelling centers. For this reason, there is a moral imperative for its decision-makers to stand for freedom of expression, and to resist the gradual encroachment of any government that attempts to dictate what (or how) these stories can and cannot be told,” the report stated.
“The industry should pull back the curtain, own up to the dilemmas it faces, and reckon candidly with these pressures in ways that allow policymakers, free expression advocates, and filmgoers to reach informed judgments.”