Hollywood's New Self-Censorship Mess in China

Censored South Park Illo - H - 2019

With pro-democracy marches gaining steam in Hong Kong and billions at stake in the country’s film market, studios may look to speak out just enough that it "doesn’t embarrass you so much that people say you’re a toady or kowtowing."

Two days after South Park was banned in China, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone served up Hollywood’s most defiant rebuke of the communist government in decades with their Oct. 9 episode. When the Comedy Central series’ geologist turned pot dealer Randy Marsh — voiced by Parker — shouted, “Fuck the Chinese government!” it marked the most incendiary words from an actor since Richard Gere dubbed China’s occupation of Tibet “horrendous” at the 1993 Oscars.

While South Park’s “Shots!!!” episode provided fodder for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, who are battling mainland backed police forces, don’t expect many other high-profile entertainment figures to follow suit. When it comes to China and its vast moneymaking potential, the prevailing wisdom is: Get woke, go broke. The practice of self-censorship is common now, say top producers. “With China, nothing is transparent,” a producer who has released films there tells The Hollywood Reporter. “No one knows what the ground rules are. And that’s by design. It leaves everyone on edge.”

From Mulan actress Crystal Liu to the Lakers’ LeBron James, most top stars are taking no chances and are lining up to either side with the Chinese regime or denounce any criticism of its authoritarian tactics. Similarly, companies like ESPN (which used a controversial map on SportsCenter that indicated the self ruled island of Taiwan was part of China) and Apple (which removed from its online stores the so-called Hong Kong protest app and quietly dropped the Gere series Bastards, despite picking it up straight to series late last year) appear to be toeing the party line.

All the while, observers say an overt self-censorship has begun to creep into the entertainment industry. Inside Hollywood, the film industry faces the greatest risk in rocking the China boat.

Consider that American movies earned $3.2 billion in China in 2018, with Disney accounting for nearly a quarter of that with $700 million. This year, the studio’s Avengers: Endgame pulled in $614 million from China alone. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Disney stayed silent in the wake of Liu posting on social media platform Weibo in August: “I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now,” adding the hashtag #IAlsoSupportTheHongKong Police.

“Disney has certainly enjoyed major success in China, but I’d hesitate to say that any single studio has the luxury of provoking China because it’s a very important relationship for the industry at large,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice Media. “Virtually all of the majors have appealed to Chinese audiences with blockbuster tentpole releases and occasionally in a bigger way than some films played with domestic moviegoers.”

James’ courtship of Chinese consumers extends well beyond basketball and sneakers and into film thanks to his upcoming Warner Bros. tentpole Space Jam 2 (dated for July 16, 2021). But James drew outrage when he blasted Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey for tweeting his support for Hong Kong protesters, calling him “misinformed” (Morey had deleted the tweet). After all, James has been outspoken about police brutality in the U.S. as well as about President Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban (in China, more than 1 million Uighur Muslims are said to be held in internment camps). 

Disney-owned ESPN drew further criticism when Deadspin on Oct. 8 reported on a leaked email written by news editor Chuck Salituro that discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong with regard to the Morey story. (An ESPN source noted that the network had reporters and cameras in Shanghai and broadcast video of a Chinese worker ripping down an NBA logo as well as video of the Lakers arriving to little fanfare.)

“In entertainment, these people have to look at the bottom line,” says Stan Rosen, a USC professor who specializes in China’s entertainment industry. “You want to address [the human rights abuses] in a way that keeps the China market but doesn’t embarrass you so much that people say you’re a toady or kowtowing to China. That’s why you’re seeing a pushback against the NBA and Disney to a certain extent.”

Some of the official explanations offered by corporate giants for their Chinese-friendly moves have been criticized as murky. With Bastards, sources say Apple bristled at the vigilante justice tone of the show. As for the app removal, the tech and soon-to-be content giant said that HKMap.Live, used by Hong Kong protesters, had endangered law enforcement and residents.

The stakes continue to grow. This year, China’s Tencent signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal to continue as the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China. In the case of South Park, China’s move to scrub every clip, episode and online discussion of the series won’t hit Viacom’s bottom line. But the parent company, soon to merge with CBS, will have to contend with any Chinese retaliation for its other companies like Paramount, which fuels the country’s pipeline with such product as the Mission: Impossible and Transformers films.

A company like Netflix has more freedom to antagonize China given that its platform isn’t available in the Middle Kingdom, thus it acquired such incendiary documentaries as 2017’s Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower. But it will face a major test of China’s patience with the upcoming Meryl Streep starrer The Laundromat, which depicts adherents of outlawed spiritual practice Falun Gong as victims of the government’s organ harvesting program. South Park and Laundromat notwithstanding, the industry likely will continue to tiptoe around China and any other lucrative hotspots that contribute to the bottom line of studios, networks and streamers.

“That’s the world in which we live now. You’re pandering to the people that have the money and the power,” says Joker producer Jason Cloth of the industry’s increased self-censorship. “There are many films that fail in North America but do gangbuster business in major foreign markets. So if you have to be cognizant of offending somebody in a major foreign market, you’re going to stay away from that subject matter.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.