Pompeo Urges Hollywood to Reject Chinese Censorship

Secretary of state wants film industry to tell the truth about China

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo / Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urged Hollywood to resist Beijing pressure to censor American films in exchange for gaining access to Chinese audiences.

In a speech to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Pompeo told a closed-door gathering that movies were a large part of his life—along with billions of people around the world—according to notes prepared for the speech obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Pompeo then praised Hollywood as a symbol of American freedom and creativity but urged movie studios to help extend President Trump's push to level the international playing field for the American film industry.

In exchange, Pompeo asked MPAA executives to stop bowing to Chinese censors.

China is eroding Hollywood's freedom by setting the terms of the content of movies, as studios compete to have their movies accepted among the limited number of movies China authorizes to be shown in the country each year.

Two recent film remakes demonstrate how American filmmakers altered original scripts to curry favor with Beijing censors.

The 2012 remake of Red Dawn changed the original Soviet and Cuban military invasion of the United States to a Chinese invasion.

But under pressure from Beijing, MGM, the producer, altered the identity of the invading troops in post-production from Chinese military forces to North Korean troops.

Despite making the alteration, the film was not released in China.

More recently, a sequel to the Navy jet pilot film Top Gun was altered to change a military patch originally showing the flags of Taiwan, a Chinese rival, and Japan.

A trailer to the forthcoming movie Top Gun: Maverick shows Tom Cruise's character wearing his signature leather bomber jacket.

But in July, social media posts revealed that the jacket in the new film did not contain the Taiwan flag, in an apparent bid to appease Chinese censors.

The original leather jacket included a large patch with the words "Far East Cruise 63-4, USS Galveston." The patch marked the battleship's tour of Japan, Taiwan, and the Western Pacific and contained U.S., U.N., Japanese, and Taiwanese flags.

In the new film, the U.S. and U.N. flags remain but the Taiwanese and Japanese flags were removed.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has been clashing with Japan over Tokyo's Senkaku Islands that Beijing claims as its territory in the East China Sea.

Pompeo explained that bending to Chinese censors prevents telling the truth about the authoritarian Chinese regime and furthers Chinese information operations and soft power activities.

He questioned whether a film like Seven Years in Tibet would be made today.

The 1997 film depicted the Chinese military takeover of Tibet in 1950 as seen through the eyes of an Austrian mountain climber played by Brad Pitt.

The State Department plans to raise public awareness about Chinese influence in U.S. movies and television programming and wants to cooperate with the movie industry to address China-related challenges.

Pompeo concluded by urging Hollywood to live up to its legacy of acting as an agent for freedom of expression.

A spokeswoman for the MPAA could not be reached for comment.

In addition to movie censorship, China also pressured U.S. airlines into altering the identification of Taiwan as a country on corporate websites. The companies caved to the pressure over fears of being shut out of airline routes into China.

In May, then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders denounced that pressure campaign by Beijing.

Sanders said Trump opposed political correctness during his election campaign and opposes "efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens."

"The United States strongly objects to China's attempts to compel private firms to use specific language of a political nature in their publicly available content," Sanders said at the time.

Film critic Christian Toto noted Hollywood has never been more vocal in weighing in on topics like immigration, transgender rights and gun control.

"Yet when it comes to Chinese censorship they can't spare a syllable," said Toto, editor of the online film review website Hollywoodintoto.com.

"Artists turn away as Chinese censors slice and dice their product," he said. "Even Quentin Tarantino allowed it to happen to his 2012 film Django Unchained. They realize the Chinese movie market can turn flops into hits, and they don't want to rock that fiscal boat."

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said China has sought to control content in American media.

"American audiences are being submitted to censorship, not our own censorship, but a foreign power's censorship, and a Communist Party censorship," he said.

"But we get shown a very benign view of China in which China is a normal country, no different from France, or Britain, or Germany. That is not the case obviously. If you speak against the government in Germany nothing happens to you. If you speak against the government in China, they'll throw you in jail."

Gonzalez said the Chinese box office is No. 2 in the world. Revenue in China is now about $8.6 billion annually compared to around $11 billion for the U.S. movie market, making it a lucrative market.

In order to gain access to that Chinese market Hollywood has agreed to avoid sensitive topics and to submit scripts to censors, he said.

"China will demand that for the movie to be considered for showing in China it must be free of any characters or ideas opposed by the ruling Communist Party of China," Gonzalez said.

Thus films about Tibet or the imprisonment of ethnic Uighurs in western China are no longer considered for production.

Gonzalez said there are "three T's" that are taboo for movies seeking to be shown in China: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan. Tiananmen refers to the use of Chinese military forces to crush pro-democracy protests in Beijing's central square in June 1989.

American moviemakers should disclose whether films were influenced or censored by China.

"If a Chinese censor has anything to do with a movie, it should be very clear to the audiences, it should be shown in the credits [that] the script of this movie was shown to Chinese censors," Gonzalez said. "‘This movie was changed at the direction of Chinese censors.'"

"There's nothing we can do about Chinese audiences, but American audiences have the right to know which Hollywood studios and which movies are doing these things," he said.

The comments were made in a Heritage podcast broadcast earlier this year.

The Pentagon's most recent annual report on the Chinese military stated that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is utilizing "three warfares" as part of global influence operations. The three warfares include psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare.

"China views the cyberspace domain as a platform providing opportunities for influence operations, and the PLA likely seeks to use online influence activities to support its overall three warfares strategy and to undermine an adversary’s resolve in a contingency or conflict," the report said.

"Consistent with this strategy, China conducts influence operations against cultural institutions, media organizations, and the business, academic, and policy communities of the United States, other countries, and international institutions to achieve outcomes favorable to its security and military strategy objectives."

The influence operations are coordinated at high levels and executed by a range of actors, such as the United Front Work Department, the Propaganda Ministry, and the Ministry of State Security, the civilian intelligence service.

Chinese foreign influence activities are focused on establishing and maintaining power brokers within foreign governments to promote policies China believes will assist China’s modernization—despite Beijing's frequent claims of not interfering in foreign countries’ internal affairs, the report said.