Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee on Wednesday slammed Netflix for defending its decision to greenlight a high-profile adaptation of the Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s “Three-Body Problem” novels despite his “execrable views” on China’s treatment of its mostly Muslim Uyghur population.
Netflix announced early last month that it had commissioned “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and writer-producer Alexander Woo (“True Blood”) to produce a serial version of the Hugo Award-winning trilogy. In the wake of the news, Blackburn and four other Republican senators sent a Sept. 23 letter to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos to express “significant concerns” over the choice to adapt a work from an author who has previously defended the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have corralled an estimated one million Uyghurs into internment camps as part of a campaign of forced assimilation that critics have deemed a cultural genocide.
In a 2019 New Yorker interview, Liu Cixin defended the Chinese government’s actions by invoking well-worn talking points used by Beijing. “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks?” he said. “If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.”
Netflix replied to Blackburn’s initial letter with a statement that twice expressed that it did not agree with Liu’s comments and three times repeated that “Mr. Liu is the author of the books, not the creator of this series.” The full statement from Netflix can be read here. The full letter from Blackburn and her GOP colleagues can be read here. China, where authorities ban online platforms not subject to their censorship regime, is one of just four places globally where Netflix does not operate, with the others being North Korea, Syria and Crimea.
Blackburn’s defense of a Muslim minority group in China may come as a surprise to those familiar with the conservative politician’s past positions on issues related to Islam. Blackburn has defended Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration and decried lessons about Islam in middle school world history classes as “reprehensible indoctrination” of Tennessee’s youth. Elsewhere, artist Taylor Swift called the politician “Trump in a wig” in Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” slamming her for voting against protections for women and LGBTQ communities.
The aggressive bipartisan turn against China in American politics has jumbled together ideologies that are often in opposition. Republican senators have taken harsh positions against immigration, Islam and China and its ruling Communist Party, yet go on to criticize China for its treatment of its own Muslim minorities. Meanwhile, Hollywood likes to promote its liberal bona fides and its push to amplify the voices of underrepresented minorities, but major studios like Disney turned a blind eye to the plight of the Uyghurs when it collaborated with Xinjiang authorities in making the new live-action “Mulan.”
Similarly, despite Blackburn’s strong words on the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, her office did not respond to a question on whether she would support America accepting a greater number of asylum-seeking Uyghur refugees fleeing that crisis.
Below is an email interview conducted with Sen. Blackburn’s office about Netflix and Hollywood.
Netflix responded to your letter by writing: “Mr. Liu is the author of the books, not the creator of this series. Mr. Liu’s comments are not reflective of the views of Netflix or of the show’s creators, nor are they part of the plot or themes of the show.” Are you satisfied with this response?
I don’t think anyone who actually read the letter would be satisfied with Netflix’s assertion that Mr. Liu “is the author of the books, not the creator of the series.” Just because he is not the creator, does not mean he doesn’t have a role in its production. Many authors whose books are adapted into live-action series are involved in the adaptation or production of their works on screen. What will Mr. Liu’s role be?
Also, Netflix argues that his comments are entirely unrelated to his book or the show. It is notable that Mr. Liu would hold such execrable views of Uyghurs while in his book he so vividly documents the plight of struggling artists and the alienation to which they were subjected. Despite the sympathy he appears to have for the characters in his book, he does not extend that same feeling to the minority in his own country. Either Liu is an apologist for crimes against Uyghurs or he is caving to the Chinese Communist Party’s doctrine.
The bottom line of my letter was that Mr. Liu, when given a platform, chooses to utilize that platform to promote genocidal rhetoric and fictions generated by the CCP. Netflix is choosing to widen Mr. Liu’s platform by adapting his original works into a series for their network. The collaboration is evidence of Netflix’s complicity.
Why was the issue of Mr. Liu’s politics important enough to inspire you to spearhead writing the letter to Ted Sarandos?
We are in an age when the politics and ethics of celebrities are considered alongside their professional work. Why Netflix seems to believe that its entrée into the Chinese market could be devoid of politics — or ethics itself in this case — is beyond me.
Generally speaking, what do we risk losing if American content creators continue to tailor material to suit the Chinese market?
We have already seen these risks manifest themselves. I encourage everyone to read PEN America’s excellent report on this topic — from top studios refusing to make movies with Chinese villains, to Beijing’s quota system for Hollywood movies, to outright censorship of views that don’t align with the Communist Party. Look at the case of Tibet. You can’t mention Tibet in a movie, quote the Dalai Lama, or even have a Tibetan character. Marvel Studios re-wrote a Tibetan monk into a Celt because “if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place…you risk alienating one billion people” [as “Doctor Strange” writer C. Robert Cargill told the Double Toasted Podcast in a 2016 interview]. This is the kind of widespread cultural erasure that we are facing — and that Netflix is supporting through projects such as these.
Given that many Chinese nationals and creatives likely hold views similar to Mr. Liu’s on Xinjiang and other issues, should American entertainment firms avoid collaborating with Chinese entities on creative ventures altogether? Do you think creative exchange should even occur? If so, how do you feel companies can engage responsibly?
I don’t think it’s fair to assume that most Chinese nationals believe Uyghurs should be held in re-education camps. The people of China see the Communist Party’s oppressive governing style, and my conversations with Chinese free speech and human rights activists have led me to believe that they want to see their government be more receptive to their concerns.
Frankly, I think the decision to produce Mr. Liu’s work is lazy on Netflix’s part. Maybe the company either didn’t do its research into Mr. Liu’s horrific beliefs, but they also missed the opportunity to tell a really compelling story by a Tibetan or a Uyghur. Netflix has made the decision to wade into the Chinese marketplace, and they will have to deal with the consequences of working with an apologist for the Communist Party — which could result in both hurting the streaming platform and perpetuating a false narrative dictated by the CCP.
In a larger sense, when it comes to companies such as Disney who chose to work directly with CCP government entities in their production of “Mulan,” they fell prey to the fallacy of thinking creative exchange is possible when negotiating with Beijing. Companies that believe such a collaboration is possible are lying to themselves. Too many American companies have lost intellectual property, and worse, to the Chinese government when they shelve their values for abject ploys for market share.
What did you think of Disney’s “Mulan,” which thanked in the credits a number of Chinese government entities that are directly involved in perpetrating human rights abuses in Xinjiang, included the U.S.-sanctioned Turpan Public Security Bureau? How do you feel American businesses should balance values with their bottom line?
As my colleagues and I wrote in our letter to Disney, the company’s apparent cooperation with PRC officials, who are most responsible for committing atrocities or for covering up those crimes, is profoundly disturbing. “Mulan” is a moving story about a young woman who was told she could not fight for her country because of her gender. Today, Uyghurs are being told that they cannot live freely in Chinese society because of their religion. Disney ought to recognize that contradiction and acknowledge its complicity in perpetuating crimes against Uyghurs.
When it comes to Disney’s values, the company has stated that they “believe social responsibility is a long-term investment that serves to strengthen our operations and competitiveness in the marketplace, enhance risk management, attract and engage talented employees, and maintain our reputation.” Earlier this year, the company pledged to donate $5 million to organizations supporting social justice. Does Disney’s social justice awareness only apply to domestic issues? Where do they draw the line?
Given that Hollywood is unlikely to give up trying to create content that can cross over to China, which is soon to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest film market, what do you feel can or should be done about Hollywood changing its own content to meet that market’s demands? How can we bring about more transparency to the ways American content companies change or censor their product for China?
Netflix’s company culture statement asserts that “Entertainment, like friendship, is a fundamental human need; it changes how we feel and gives us common ground.” However, Netflix refused to answer whether they have a policy regarding entering into contracts with public-facing individuals who, either publicly or privately, promote principles inconsistent with this company culture. This is concerning — although given recent choices by the company, perhaps unsurprising. I would encourage Netflix, and all content companies who do business with China, to take a hard look at their values, and how their current projects align with those values.