Media, entertainment and communications activities have been unwitting collateral damage from the mounting tensions between the U.S. and China that many these days characterize as a cold war.
Journalists working for American media have been expelled from China. In retaliation, the U.S. has recategorized certain Chinese media and personnel as state agents, only one rung down from spies. Meanwhile, the long-awaited bilateral film deal that would have improved the terms of trade for Hollywood and independents alike has been left on the table, unsigned.
As the Hollywood studio system has started to unravel, to be replaced with a more tech-, online- and social media-driven business model, the media industry has been drawn closer to the epicenter of the dispute, which is namely a strategic rivalry over technology. The overlapping Donald Trump-Xi Jinping era has seen every aspect of the bilateral relationship turned into tradetable bargaining chips, with diplomacy replaced by tit-for-tat maneuvering.
As such, it’s likely that this week’s U.S. presidential election will be closely watched by studio heads, tech entrepreneurs and media hacks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Conventional thinking suggests that China’s rulers are infuriated with incumbent POTUS Donald Trump. He has attacked China over its trade surplus with the U.S., flirted with Taiwan’s independence-leaning leadership, and repeatedly blamed China for the COVID-19 coronavirus. And where, early on, Chinese leaders thought they had correctly read Trump’s vanity and self-dealing, the former casino boss has proved to be an erratic and unreliable entity.
Biden, as former vice president, is a more known entity. Indeed, Biden and Xi were the signatories of the 2012 version of the bilateral film agreement.
The thinking goes that Biden would be less confrontational, less zero-sum and more predictable. Compared with Trump, who has alienated many of America’s natural allies in Europe and East Asia, a collaborative, multi-lateral Biden might be more able to build an international coalition that crimps China’s territorial ambitions, and holds it to account on human rights issues.
On balance, Trump may be favored within Beijing’s politburo because he has been so self-destructive. Trump has tarnished liberal democracy, damaged international institutions, and undermined the rule of law and civil society.
If the latest opinion polls that point to a Biden win are realized, however, it could be a victory for de-escalation and a tamping down of currently inflamed rhetoric.
“A victory for Biden will not mean things are greatly improved, but [rather] normalized. There will be talks about commerce, finance and other issues. It will become more like it was in the Obama time,” says Mark O’Neill, a veteran analyst, historian and author. His latest book, in Chinese and English, is “China’s Russian Princess: The Silent Wife of Chiang Ching-kuo,” a biography of the woman who married Chiang Kai-shek’s son.
But a return to Obama policies is unlikely. “The consensus these days in the U.S. is that China is a strategic rival, not really a partner anymore. So, I’m not expecting a 180-degree turn [away from Trumpian policies],” says O’Neill.
A former China-resident studio executive, who was not authorized to speak openly on the subject, notes, “A Trump win would mean more of the same or worse. The guard rails might come off as he sees re-election as vindication of the tactics that have led to the politicization of the State Department, Defense and Justice departments, and made entertainment just another part of the trade balance.
“Biden is a multi-lateralist, at least. But I would not expect him to address all the China issues at once. First must come the coronavirus, and the U.S. economy. Then would come relations with allies. Then competitors. Then enemies. China should be considered not as an enemy, but a competitor.”
Andre Morgan, who cut his teeth as a producer in 1970s Hong Kong, and who remains a Sino-American indie player, agrees that a Biden presidency would have to prioritize domestic issues. “In the first 6-12 months, Biden won’t make noticeable changes to America’s China policy,” says Morgan. “But there is so much common ground that only a fool cannot see it.”
A simple reset to the Obama-era may not offer much help to media and entertainment. Morgan, who argues that China ceased being a developing country more than a decade ago, says that the West has operated a policy of benign neglect since the Deng Xiaoping leadership era in the 1980s.
That Western unwillingness to push back has allowed Xi Jinping, China’s president since 2012, and its strongest leader since Mao Zedong, to advance his own aggressively nationalist agenda. This has included growing censorship and more lavish propaganda. Xi’s concept of “internet sovereignty” has kept out nearly all foreign media and banished much foreign media-tech to behind a firewall.
“The consensus is that there has not been a level playing field for years. And on that point, Trump is not wrong. Since 2010, China has been gaming the global [trade] system,” says Morgan. “Movies are the perfect example. No Hollywood studios stand a chance. They are subject to price control, import controls, content control and public ownership of the distribution mechanism.”
And while Hollywood is generally one of the few areas where the U.S. has a positive trade balance with China, America’s poor handling of the coronavirus has recently flipped the balance of power.
“In a real sense, on entertainment and media issues, China is in the driver’s seat. They are returning to normal while Hollywood and film production in the U.S. is still in a holding pattern; the box office in China has recovered significantly; there are a lot of Chinese films in the pipeline ready to go to theaters; and patriotic films are doing very well,” says Stanley Rosen, USC professor of political science, specializing in Chinese politics and society.
Rosen says China’s V-shaped box office rebound gives it no incentive to sign off on the bilateral film deal. Instead, he argues that while a Biden presidency would likely take a much softer line on issues like the proposed complete bans on TikTok and WeChat, and would end the journalist expulsions, other parts of the media-tech freeze will stick around a while longer.
“One would be the continuing ban on China in terms of taking control of American tech companies or cultural industries — for example, film studios and production companies. This is an issue where Congress is very much on board. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States [CFIUS] has been taking a much harder line, and a Biden Commerce Department would likely also take a hard line on this.”
Adds Rosen: “The bottom line is there has been a hardening on both sides in terms of the overall Sino-American relationship, with Democrats and Republicans both seeing China as an increasing threat.” But the scholar sees China’s quest for prestige and recognition as offering an enduring ray of hope.
“China does still want international recognition for its own entertainment industry [for example, overseas box office, Oscar nominations and TikTok success], and will continue to invest in Hollywood films and promote its world-class companies internationally, which means they may still be selectively cooperative in dealing with the American media-entertainment-communications sector,” says Rosen. “I don’t see the full-scale decoupling some Trump administration officials are advocating.”