Sep 1, 2020

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Today we've got censorship in Hollywood, trade deal targets, baby blankets shaped like a popular Chinese street food, and a whole lot more.

  • 🎧 Check out this morning's edition of our daily news podcast "Axios Today" for a special feature about China's censorship in Hollywood. Listen here.

Today's newsletter is 1,538 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: China is censoring Hollywood's imagination

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's economic carrots and sticks are putting pressure on Hollywood to produce films that might soar in the country's box office — and avoid those that may displease Beijing.

The big picture: By censoring American blockbusters, Beijing believes it can prevent American and global audiences from imagining the Chinese Communist Party as a major threat and from viewing the targets of China's repression as victims worthy of sympathy.

Driving the news: Disney is set to release its highly anticipated live-action remake of "Mulan" this weekend to more than 60 million subscribers of Disney+.

  • Analysts expected the film, about a young female Chinese warrior during the Han dynasty, would bring in $1 billion in global box office sales, in large part from China, though that estimate was before the pandemic.

What's happening: China's box office is projected to soon surpass the U.S. as the largest film market in the world.

  • But the Chinese government tightly controls access to the market, excluding films that include content it dislikes and blacklisting individual actors or film studios that have previously participated in activities the CCP doesn't like.

The result is an "epidemic of self-censorship" in Hollywood, said Aynne Kokas, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of the book "Hollywood Made in China."

Background: Hollywood has played an enduring role in the creation of foreign enemies in the American imagination, from Soviet Russia to Middle Eastern terrorists in the post 9/11 era.

  • A succession of James Bond movies, "Rocky IV" and "Air Force One" are just a few of the major American films featuring iconic Russian villains.
  • Popular post 9/11 movies such as "American Sniper" and "Zero Dark Thirty" presented the U.S. killing of Middle Easterners and the CIA's secret torture program as justified.

The effects of such depictions can be powerful and lasting.

  • On the silver screen, Russians are still America’s favorite bad guy, even 30 years after the end of the Cold War.
  • Hollywood has so effectively equated Russians with villainy that even the hint of a Slavic accent is often a dead giveaway that the character is evil.

Movies also have an almost unmatched ability to instill widespread public sympathy for vulnerable groups and to prolong remembrance of crimes against humanity, such as the Rwandan genocide, depicted in "Hotel Rwanda."

  • But the last time a major Hollywood studio made a movie that presented a vulnerable group as the victim of Chinese government aggression was in 1997 with "Seven Years in Tibet" starring Brad Pitt.
  • The Chinese government responded by slapping a five-year ban on Columbia TriStar, the production company that made the film — a response that cast a chill over the U.S. movie industry.

The result: Film studios now go out of their way to ensure their movies avoid topics or depictions of China that might fall foul of China's censors.

  • "What major Hollywood studio would make a movie about what is happening in Xinjiang, with the internment of over a million Muslims?" said James Tager, author of a recent PEN America report on China's censorship in Hollywood.
  • “For 10 years, you haven’t seen any bad Chinese guys,” said Schuyler Moore, a partner at Greenberg Glusker. “If I saw a script with an anti-Chinese theme, I would advise my client that that film would never be released in China.”

Yes, but: "From my perspective, the fact that we don’t have Chinese villains in Hollywood films is a good thing," said Kokas. "It’s deeply dehumanizing when certain groups become the target of villainy."

What to watch: The pandemic shuttered most of the world's theaters, putting even more pressure on the film industry. That economic upheaval may mean even less incentive for studios to stand up to China.

2. Xinjiang residents forced to take medicine amid coronavirus fight

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Rumors have swirled for months that local authorities pressed residents of Xinjiang, a far northwestern region in China, to take traditional Chinese medicine during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Now a new report from the Associated Press based on interviews, public notices and social media posts suggests this may be true.

Why it matters: Forcing an entire population to take medicine that has not been clinically proven to be effective against the coronavirus could be a breach of medical ethics.

What's happening: Chinese authorities have implemented a lockdown across Xinjiang that is extreme even by China's standards. Residents have been locked inside their own homes amid a strict quarantine that has lasted 40 days — even though the number of reported cases in Xinjiang remains relatively low.

Details: The medicine that some residents told the AP they have been forced to swallow in the presence of medical staff and under the threat of detention is called Lianhua Qingwen.

  • It's an herbal medicine produced by a company that has seen its shares rise dramatically in value in the past six months.

The big picture: Under Xi Jinping, China has increasingly sought to push traditional Chinese medicine both domestically and abroad.

  • It may be mostly about money. As AP's Dake Kang wrote, "The Chinese government’s push for traditional medicine, given free to Xinjiang residents, is bolstering the fortunes of billionaires and padding state coffers."
3. Catch up quick

1. New export controls on technologies that Beijing deems sensitive are threatening to derail efforts by American companies to acquire TikTok's U.S. operations from its Chinese parent company ByteDance. Go deeper.

2. The Department of Commerce blacklisted 24 Chinese firms for their involvement in China's illegal island-building activity and military installations in the South China Sea. Go deeper.

3. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to further cool relations with China and limit Chinese investments in Israel. Go deeper.

4. Acclaimed economist Thomas Piketty says China is censoring his new book "Capital and Ideology," which includes portions critical of China's growing wealth inequality, the South China Morning Post reports.

4. China is less than halfway to its phase 1 trade deal targets
Reproduced from Peterson Institute for International Economics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Data shows that as of July, China is more than 50% behind the pace of expected purchases required to satisfy phase one of the U.S.-China trade deal, writes Axios' Dion Rabouin.

The big picture: China is expected to purchase at least $200 billion more in U.S. exports combined in 2020 and 2021 under the deal.

By the numbers: So far, China's purchase of covered products was $39.3 billion, compared with a year-to-date target of $83.2 billion, Chad Bown, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, notes.

  • Through July, Chinese imports of all uncovered products from the U.S. were actually 28% lower than over the same period in 2017.

Driving the news: Following a videoconference between senior U.S. and Chinese officials on Monday, both sides said they were committed to carrying out the deal.

  • More importantly, no adjustments or plans for China to realistically meet the targets were announced despite the severe disruption to its economy as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: With tariffs still in place on most Chinese exports to the U.S. and on many Chinese imports from the U.S., businesses and consumers are still paying the trade wars costs, but they're seeing less than half of the purported benefits from the conflict's lone agreement.

  • In particular, American farmers, who have suffered greatly from the trade war, were anticipating a boost from the increased Chinese purchases after retaliation from Beijing caused a severe decline in commodity prices and exports last year.

Yes, but: Earlier this month, the Department of Agriculture reported the sale of 126,000 tonnes of soybeans to China, the eighth consecutive weekday with large sales to Chinese buyers.

  • And U.S. oil traders, shipbrokers and Chinese importers reportedly told Reuters that Chinese state-owned oil firms have plans to carry at least 20 million barrels of U.S. crude for August and September.

Between the lines: Trade is the last major area where the U.S. is still relying on traditional diplomacy with China, as President Trump has ratcheted up measures targeting China heading into the November presidential election.

5. What I'm reading

Easy there tiger: America’s excessive reliance on sanctions will come back to haunt it (Washington Post)

  • "The more Trump resorts to sanctions as unilateral cudgels, and the more he wields them to look tough rather than to execute an overarching strategy, the more other countries will resent the United States and push back. This is the real cost of sanctions," writes Fareed Zakaria.

Drama on the high seas: China Coast Guard seizes Hong Kong activists fleeing to Taiwan (Wall Street Journal)

  • "The attempted escape to Taiwan was reminiscent of Operation Yellowbird, when Western intelligence agencies and activists aided Tiananmen Square protesters trying to flee the mainland via Hong Kong."
  • One of the activists was Andy Li, who had been arrested two weeks earlier under the new national security law.

Wolf warriors: The Chinese Communist Party’s coercive diplomacy (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)

  • A new report from Australia's top foreign policy think tank identifies 152 instances when China used coercive diplomacy over 10 years, affecting 27 countries and the European Union.
  • The authors of the report define coercive actions as "economic measures (such as trade sanctions, investment restrictions, tourism bans and popular boycotts) and non-economic measures (such as arbitrary detention, restrictions on official travel and state-issued threats)."
6. 1 fun thing: This popular Chinese street food is now a blanket

Photo: Courtesy of UnTour

If you've ever wanted to wrap your baby (or yourself) up in a giant jianbing, now's your chance — some brilliant entrepreneurial soul decided to turn the iconic Chinese street food into a warm fuzzy blanket.

For the uninitiated, a jianbing is a savory, eggy crepe smeared with spicy sauce and filled with youtiao (crispy fried dough) and other fillings.

  • The travel website UnTour is now selling these blankets, presumably marketed for the rapidly growing audience of people like me who have been blacklisted from China and long for the days when we could grab a jianbing from the local corner seller every morning.

Why it matters: As UnTour writes, now you can "be the youtiao in your very own jianbing blanket at home."