“I keep telling them what nice people you are, but they won’t listen!” The speaker was a gangly Englishman with prominent ears, sharing breakfast tea with an attractive Chinese woman in a mid-priced hotel near Paddington Station in London. The date was May 17, 2019, and the headlines were full of stories about the belated American effort to persuade its allies, including the United Kingdom, not to adopt the Chinese version of 5G wireless technology. The Englishman’s ears grew red as he struggled to persuade the woman that the deal they had been working on was not about to fall through.
I was sitting at a nearby table, and while I am not in the habit of eavesdropping on business conversations, this one caught my attention because of the way the woman was dressed. I don’t know for sure, but my general impression is that female office attire in London does not normally consist of Nasty Gal platform heels, sheer black stockings, leather hot pants, see-through silk blouses, garish rhinestone earrings, and theatrical makeup.
Then the Englishman uttered the word “Huawei.” At the time of this writing, Huawei is practically a household word among newspaper readers. But only a few weeks ago, this Chinese manufacturer of 5G wireless networks had a low enough profile that the closed-caption service of CNN made one of its typical orthographic errors, transcribing “Huawei” as “Yahweh.” This was weirdly apt, because the Chinese Communist Party does in fact aspire to be all-seeing and all-powerful, like the God of the Hebrew Bible—the only difference being that the latter is also infinitely merciful and just.
Back to my eavesdropping. At the mention of Huawei, the Chinese woman frowned, scooped up her phone, and exited the room. Then, as if on cue, a grim-faced Chinese man entered and began to press the Englishman for more detail about why his bosses were being recalcitrant about the deal. At this point, I was trying to control my own facial expression so as not to be mistaken for an American spy—or perhaps a colleague of the poor young fellow, who at this point was floundering badly and, I suspect, wondering desperately where his Chinese lady friend had gone.
At length she returned, and, standing behind the Englishman, she leaned over his shoulder to peer at his laptop and place a gentle hand on his back, while her grim-faced comrade delivered what sounded like a well-rehearsed harangue. I could only catch a few phrases: “amazing 5G speeds,” “zero latency,” “brilliant connectivity,” “autonomous vehicles,” “millions of jobs,” “trillions of pounds.” When the harangue was over, the Englishman sat silently while his two interlocutors spoke to each other, and to unseen parties on their phones, in rapid, agitated Mandarin.
At this point, we were all pretty breathless: the Englishman for reasons that should be obvious, the two Chinese because it appeared they were getting chewed out by their bosses for not closing the deal, and me because I was witnessing history in the making.
Either that or a bad movie. I say “bad” because the casting was so clichéd: clueless young Brit falls for Asian Mata Hari, then falls prey to thuggish operative who refuses to take no for an answer. This is not to suggest that a good movie or TV series could not be made about the long-running saga of Sino-Western competition in any number of fields, including wireless technology. Indeed, this saga is currently entering an especially intense and dramatic phase, because while many of the current headlines focus on accusations of intellectual property theft by Huawei, the graver concern is with the threat 5G poses to privacy, liberty, and security.
As noted recently by Harold Furchtgott-Roth of the Hudson Institute, there are four main companies that manufacture complete suites of cellular network equipment. None of them are American—the other three are Samsung (Korean), Ericsson (Swedish), and Nokia (Finnish)—but Huawei is the biggest and most aggressive.
The problem with this state of affairs was ably captured by U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Robert Spalding (ret.), one of the few analysts sober enough to be quoted across the political spectrum. “Data is a strategic resource,” Spalding said at the same Hudson Institute event, “and to the extent that you allow the hardware that carries that data to be manufactured in a totalitarian state that has values and principles that are inimical to yours, you’re essentially putting yourself at their whims.” He went on:
Europe dominated 2G, 3G; the U.S. dominated 4G; and the Chinese essentially decided that they’re going to dominate 5G. Well, when you build out most of the world’s infrastructure . . . . then you have enormous power to do surveillance, you have enormous power to use the machines that are connected in ways that aren’t intended by their owners, and you have a huge ability, specifically with big data and artificial intelligence, to begin to influence populations . . . . There is enormous influence going on in the world today, and that [is] with 4G technology. Imagine what that will be like when there is such pervasive amount of data and understanding and the ability to implement that at a very fine level—it’s staggering.
Staggering enough, surely, to inspire any number of brilliant and terrifying films and TV series. But apart from one or two episodes of the British series Black Mirror, is anyone working on this? Not in Hollywood, certainly. For the last several years Hollywood has been gradually compromising its hard-won artistic freedom at the behest of the Chinese, a process that is now close to abject surrender.
There was a time when Hollywood dared to criticize China. In a 1997 film from MGM titled Red Corner, Richard Gere plays a U.S. businessman, in Beijing to negotiate a satellite communications deal, who is framed by a rival company for the murder of a woman he picks up in a hotel bar, who happens to be the daughter of a prominent Chinese general. Panned in America for its “contrived” plot and presumed ethnic stereotypes, the film was denounced in China on rather different grounds—namely, its unflattering but accurate portrayal of the Chinese criminal justice system.
Red Corner was nearly forgotten in 2012, when MGM decided to remake a 1987 film called Red Dawn, about a group of hapless American teenagers fighting a guerrilla war against a Soviet invasion. Part of the update was to make the invaders Chinese instead of Russian. But when Red Dawn was in post-production, someone at MGM recalled how Beijing’s outrage over Red Corner had led to a Chinese boycott of MGM films and put a lasting damper on Gere’s acting career. At that point the studio decided to reverse-engineer the film, adding new footage, special effects, and dialogue to make the invaders North Korean instead of Chinese. The rationale was summed up for me by a friend who works as a talent agent in Los Angeles: “Nobody cares what the North Koreans think. They don’t buy movie tickets!”
Like most private-sector industries in the West, America’s film studios have long dealt with China in a way that places economic self-interest above all other considerations, from domestic prosperity to human rights to national security. Initially, this misplaced priority led Hollywood to alter films in order to get them approved by Chinese authorities who enforce not just a quota on the number of imported films but also a list of do’s and don’ts with regard to content.
To be sure, every country except the United States has a government “film classification board” that certifies all films, domestic and foreign, for public exhibition. So Hollywood is well accustomed to making minor tweaks to get into major markets. But China is a special case, because unlike most countries, it has in recent years aspired to becoming a cultural hegemon on the same global scale as America.
The first step in pursuing this aspiration was to require Hollywood studios to work with Chinese partners that are ostensibly private but in fact under the control of the Communist Party. The second was to offer the studios an increased share of the revenue earned in China, in exchange for increased oversight of the production process, from casting to screenplays to plot elements favorable to the Party’s version of Chinese values and tradition. And the third step, taken in the last few years, was to lavish generous subsidies and other inducements on studios willing to invest in, and produce films in, shiny new production facilities on Chinese soil—despite the fact that doing so entails handing all creative decision-making over to the Chinese authorities.
These more recent developments have run parallel to a drastic consolidation of the entire Chinese media system under the direct control of an oversight body within the State Council—effectively the cabinet of President Xi Jinping. And now, in a turn of events that has stayed well beneath the radar of the mainstream American media, this oversight body has quite drastically altered the terms of the Hollywood-Beijing relationship.
The turning point was the box-office failure, in early 2017, of the most ambitious Sino-American co-production ever: The Great Wall. This special-effects extravaganza starring Matt Damon and set in 11th-century China was backed by NBCUniversal and three Chinese partners; produced at a shiny new facility in the thriving port city of Qingdao; and directed by Zhang Yimou, arguably the most famous filmmaker in China.1 With a budget of $150 million, it had all the ingredients of a colossal hit: big-name stars such as Damon, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, and Jing Tian; eye-popping CG images such as a Great Wall metastasized to 30 times its actual height; and an unlimited supply of scaly monsters, handsomely armored Song dynasty troops, and a female special-ops unit skilled in the ancient martial art of hurling spears while bungee-jumping into the abyss.
Peering through their politically correct lens, a few U.S. critics objected to the film’s seeming neglect of Asian characters in favor of Damon and his band of European mercenaries. But as explained by film scholar Ying Zhu, the decision to foreground these greedy, hirsute foreigners was no accident: “Dwarfed by the gigantic Great Wall, the gunpowder-crazed European mercenaries appear captivated literally and figuratively by the enormity of China and Chinese culture. They are, in time, taught a moral lesson, chiefly by the righteous Chinese female Commander, on fighting for trust and honor instead of gunpowder.”
Released to great fanfare, The Great Wall was a resounding flop, grossing a mere $171 million in China and performing just as poorly elsewhere. The biggest loser was NBCUniversal, which had contributed not just $10 million to the production but also the entire marketing budget of $80 million. But that was only the beginning. The repercussions since then have become quite disturbing. In a nutshell, Beijing seems to have abandoned its hopes of becoming a global hegemon in favor of enlisting Hollywood talent and know-how in the production of domestic propaganda.
This may sound outlandish, but consider: in August 2017 the Party ordered a crackdown on independent-minded Chinese businessmen with major investments in Hollywood. State-owned banks were told to deny loans to people like Wang Jianlin, founder and CEO of the real-estate conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, which had recently acquired two U.S. companies, Legendary Pictures and AMC Theatres. Not surprisingly, this sudden cut-off of funds caused consternation in the movie colony. The trade paper Deadline Hollywood quoted one industry China-watcher warning that “with no alternatives for risk-tolerant investors on the horizon ready to put money into the traditional film studio business model, Hollywood will be forced to take every overture from China seriously.” (emphasis added)
Prescient words. As I wrote in a previous column, the business model of the U.S. film industry is shifting away from the conventional two-hour movie and toward the long-form TV series and other streaming entertainment. Most Americans are dimly aware that this shift is prompting an exodus of movie talent from the large to the small screen. But very few Americans realize that in response to the changed priorities in China, a similar exodus is flowing across the Pacific to China. In the last two years, this exodus has included not just actors like Michael Douglas, Bruce Willis, and Adrian Brody, but also hundreds of producers, cinematographers, composers, visual effects supervisors, action coordinators, and other professionals.
I am reluctant to blame these people. Most are highly skilled individuals seeking employment and advancement in a situation where, to repeat the phrase quoted above, they are “forced to take every overture from China seriously.” But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the situation is a good one, either for them or for America. For most of its history, Hollywood prided itself on offering a taste of freedom and prosperity to people all over the world who could only dream of these things. Indeed, in my last column I described the long struggle to win First Amendment protection for film as a medium of artistic expression.
This makes it all the more distressing to see how little this history matters to the Americans who are now lending their talents to an industry firmly in the grip of the Chinese Communist Party. Not only that, but the films these Americans are helping to make are not, for the most part, intended for a global audience. Rather they are aimed at the domestic audience, which means their purpose is either to distract the Chinese masses or to propagandize them. In either case, they will serve no larger purpose than keeping 1.4 billion people in line with the stifling ideology of Xi Jinping.
As long as humanity has an appetite for gigantic superheroes fighting gigantic supervillains, Hollywood will survive. But when it comes to film as a subtle, humane art form that can move the emotions and elevate the sensibilities of ordinary men and women, that battle is lost. America is no longer in that business, and neither is China.
Which brings us back to the battle over 5G wireless technology. Important as the movies are, that older battle pales by comparison to this newer one. Pessimistic pundits are now given to predicting a world with two internet systems: one open and free within a firewall erected by the world’s liberal democracies, and another closed and controlled within barriers enforced by authoritarian regimes. In light of what we’ve been hearing about the capacities of 5G, this scenario seems too optimistic. How will that work? What will that firewall and barriers be made of?
In a recent New Yorker article, Sue Halpern reports that “In China, which has installed three hundred and fifty thousand 5G relays—about ten times more than the United States—enhanced geolocation, coupled with an expansive network of surveillance cameras, each equipped with facial-recognition technology, has enabled authorities to track and subordinate the country’s eleven million Uighur Muslims.” She cites Paul Mozur of the New York Times on how this makes China “a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism,” and closes with Robert Spalding’s warning of an “existential” threat to democracy posed by any government gaining “full knowledge of everything you do at all times. Because the tendency is always going to be to want to regulate how you think, how you act, what you do. The problem is that most people don’t think very hard about what that world would look like.” (emphasis added)
What would that world look like? To imagine this, we urgently need a gripping drama that, like a Greek tragedy, forces large numbers of citizens to confront the thing we fear most, in order to summon the fortitude to keep it at bay. If Hollywood cannot create this drama, then somebody else should create it. And soon.
1Zhang’s finest achievement, a 1994 film called To Live, traces the life of a Chinese family from the period just before the Communist Revolution to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. This honest, humane, beautiful film was immediately banned by the Party and has never been exhibited in China. Zhang’s punishment for making such a film was an enforced eight-year hiatus from working, which may explain his willingness to lend his talents to such Party-approved spectacles as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and—regrettably—The Great Wall.