China Doesn’t Believe in ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ – Hollywood Should Be on Guard | PRO Insight

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Class struggle. Revolution. Propaganda. Censorship. The Chinese Communist Party has harnessed art to enforce ideological conformity from the very beginning. Today is no different. Controlling art and storytelling — including the use of market power to shape Hollywood’s narratives — remains central to the Party’s multibillion-dollar global propaganda effort, and the creative industry needs to be wary of playing into its hands.

I recently led a congressional delegation from the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party out to California to get outside the D.C. bubble and hear from entertainment executives on the good, the bad and the ugly of their dealings with China.

Here’s a question I like to ask people to get them to understand the problem: Can you name the most powerful, successful actress in film history? United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford? How about modern box-office powerhouses like Julia Roberts or Scarlett Johansen?

Not even close. The most powerful film actress ever was Lan Ping. A middling actress in the Shanghai film scene of the 1930s, she left behind a string of scandalous affairs when she ran off to join the Communist revolution and fell in love with a man named Mao Zedong. The starring role of Lan Ping’s career would be when she gave up her stage name and became Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s partner in power for the rest of his life.

Mao Zedong, first Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, with his wife, the former Lan Ping, Shanghai motion picture actress, wearing uniform Communist trousers and tunic. As Jiang Qing, she would direct the Party’s early propaganda efforts. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Mao Zedong, first Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, with his wife, the former Lan Ping, Shanghai motion picture actress, wearing uniform Communist trousers and tunic. As Jiang Qing, she would direct the Party’s early propaganda efforts. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

There was “no such thing as art for art’s sake” Mao declared in one of his famous talks at Yan’an. Art was another weapon for use in class struggle. And censorship was not anathema — it was an essential part of Communist art. Mao said:

“We must… repudiate all works of literature and art expressing views in opposition to the nation… and to the Communist Party, because these so-called works of literature and art… produce the effect of undermining unity.”

Jiang Qing seized control of the Central Propaganda Department, which controlled the entire film industry. She helped kick off the bloody Cultural Revolution, and at the height of the chaos practically the only dramatic works that were deemed “politically correct” were the eight revolutionary model operas she produced. The joke was “eight stage works for 800 million people.”

Contemporary examples of modern influence tools, descendants of Jiang Qing’s foundational work, include near-total control of Chinese language media outside of China; Xinhua’s “wire service” which pumps propaganda through newspapers around the world; TikTok, WeChat and their combined billions of users; and the co-optation of foreign media and entertainment outlets via economic coercion. Today, the Central Propaganda Department is more powerful than Jiang Qing could have dreamed.

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On our recent trip, my colleagues and I were particularly concerned by the stories we heard about how the entertainment industry self-censors material that might run afoul of Party sensitivities just for the prospect of potentially accessing the Chinese market. I posed a question to a group of studio executives, “If you were asked, in public, ‘Is there a genocide happening in Xinjiang?’, how would you answer that question?” Several admitted they would be very reticent to answer it honestly, for fear that the Chinese Communist Party would retaliate — not just against any currently running movies, but against their entire studio.

Perhaps that answer should not surprise us: We have seen dozens of prominent figures in American entertainment, sports, and at private companies dodge and weave when asked about the Xinjiang genocide. But it should concern us very deeply. How have we gotten to a point where so many prominent people in American public life are afraid to speak the truth about an ongoing humanitarian tragedy? Hollywood is not usually known for shrinking from activism, and, historically, has rightfully played a leading role in bearing witness to the Holocaust through the power of film.

I understand the allure of the mainland Chinese market. The “Wolf Warrior” movies are now some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, in any geography. We heard all about how American moviemakers don’t get a fair shake in China. Even when our movies are allowed in, the state takes an enormous cut of the profits. And, of course, Party censors prevent the Chinese people from receiving any message that might challenge the party line.

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Why is the CCP so paranoid about censorship? Because the Party believes that it is engaged in an existential, whole-of-society competition with the United States. Every company, newspaper article and movie is a potential lever to achieve strategic dominance. The CCP weaponizes access to the Chinese market to enforce party orthodoxy on the companies it cannot control directly.

To counter the CCP, we need to engage the whole of our own society. Not in a coercive way, like the CCP, but in a way that reflects American values. We want American entertainment content to remain dominant around the world. I came away from the conversations with a new appreciation of the amount of work that goes into opening new markets for our entertainment content, and the need to make market access for our films a key aspect of trade policy, especially elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

No one watches Jiang Qing’s revolutionary operas anymore, yet the whole world watches American movies from that same era. Given the choice, free people prefer art to propaganda.

With a little self-reflection and an embrace of its historic ideals, Hollywood can help ensure that in a hundred years the world will still be marveling at American creativity, while Chinese Communist  propaganda collects nothing but dust.

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