Despite being a great world power, Chinese authorities still have a battle to win: their attempts to gain international audience are counterproductive and often perceived as propaganda by the rest of the world. The soft power – in Mandarin Ruǎn shílì (软实力) – was officially adopted by the Chinese government as a political principle in 2007 during the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, for serving the purpose of promoting China on the international scene. Soft power is a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence, and Beijing government now recognises the cinema industry as one of the essential tools of Chinese soft power.
As China’s investment into American cinema market is experiencing growth, Hollywood gladly welcomes their businessmen. While Chinese investors are interested in buying shares of the Hollywood studios, China’s real soft power lies in deciding which movies get access to the country. The American producers are willing to attract the Chinese to obtain access to their theatres. It’s a fact that China will soon become the first cinema market in the world overtaking the U.S., and it is using that fact to influence how Hollywood represents it.
In my opinion, cinema is politics and has always been it by giving a politicised point of view. Most of the time it’s subtle, not extravagant, not written in big bold letters, but it is. By politics, I mean political acts, political opinions, points of view on society.
In January 2016, the Chinese conglomerate Wanda announced the acquisition of a majority stake in Legendary Entertainment studio, known for its successful blockbusters (producer of sagas Jurassic World or Pacific Rim, in particular). By investing $ 3.5 billion, Wanda has made the biggest takeover of an entertainment company by a Chinese group. This investment reflects the spirit of Zǒu chūqù (走出 去), literally “go out”, a strategy proposed by the Chinese government to private companies to expand and conquer new markets. Today, this policy is not limited to commercial activities but becomes a strategic element of Chinese soft power policy.
If this strategy mainly serves Chinese interests, it also benefits US companies. Thus the agreement between Wanda and Legendary places the Californian production company in a prime position for the Chinese box office. While China protects its film industry by limiting the number of foreign films distributed on its territory (34 by year), co-productions with China pass through these limitations. We understand the interest of major American studios in the face of investments and alliances with Chinese producers: access to a massive market.
For China, this operation is also quite appealing regarding their image. Between 2002 and 2012, 37 films were co-produced by China and the United States. In 2015, ten Sino-US co-productions were signed. But to achieve co-production status, the movie are all screened by the China Films Co-production Corporation (CFCC), under the direct auspices of NRTA (The National Radio and Television Administration). The main criteria are: turn at least a part on Chinese soil, have at least one actor and Chinese character, be produced by one or more Chinese companies at least one-third of investments. So co-productions with China cannot show a face of the country that would displease the authorities. Whether foreign co-productions or blockbusters succeed in integrating the Chinese market, the image of China, returned by these big budget and export-oriented films, is mostly positive.
In “2012” (Emmerich, 2009), the Secretary General of the White House sings the praises of China and describes its scientists as “visionaries” for making the ark that saves civilisation.
In “The Martian” (Ridley Scott, 2015), the Chinese space agency CNSA proposes to NASA to use their unveiled rocket, to perform a supply mission to the planet Mars. This Chinese aid will ultimately save astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and bring him back to Earth.
In “Doctor Strange” (Scott Derrickson, 2016), the Ancient One is Celtic, played by British actress Tilda Swinton but in the 1960’s Marvel comics the Ancient One is drawn as an elderly Tibetan man. The producers decided to change the character’s ethnicity to avoid offending the Chinese government.