Student Opinion: China’s Harmful Censorship of America’s Entertainment Media

The Wall Street Journal

By Liam Benedict 

The average moviegoer tends to think that when they watch a movie, people all around the globe are getting the same experience that they are. This is not always the case, especially when it comes to China. 

You see, most countries have a nuanced film rating system based on age. In the People’s Republic, however, a movie is either made safe for all ages, or it is banned. 

This is a terrible system that the Chinese government uses to justify tyranny and the suppression of ideas –– ideas that threaten its values and status, like homosexuality –– as well as unflattering depictions of the country’s history. 

While the film industry has always been big in America for many decades, we are not alone at the top. In 2018, China became the second-largest film market in the world, grossing over nine billion dollars. 

All this demonstrates is just how popular movies have become among the Chinese people. Due to government restrictions, however, the majority of foreign films are not shown in their original form

China has a long history of banning or otherwise censoring foreign films, starting in the 1930s with the banning of The Ten Commandments under their “superstitious films” clause.

The Ten Commandments was one of many regulations issued by the Shanghai Autonomous Bureau, eventually changing to become the National Radio and Television Administration, that is still in place today. 

It is their job to censor or ban foreign films, issuing standards and regulations that must be met if a director wishes for their film to be shown in China. Not giving a country’s citizenry a choice about viewing films with violent or sexual content is one thing but attempting to erase an entire group of people from the media is totally unacceptable. 

Given how much money can be made from movie showings in that country, most directors simply choose to follow the conditions, cutting down their films or even reshooting parts of them. 

Such examples can be found in many famous American movies. For instance, the movie “Logan” had 14 minutes of scenes containing fighting and nudity removed for the Chinese release.  

The cuts made to these feature films are sometimes so drastic that it noticeably affects the plot of the movie. 

Charles Lieu of The Beijinger writes that “the film’s monsters are only shown on screen for a total of one to two minutes… the cuts made to Alien: Covenant will greatly reduce audience enjoyment of the film.” 

This can hardly be called an equivalent experience to the original version. I agree that there should be limits, but if an artist wants to put out films for adults into the world, then the people should decide whether or not to watch them, not their government. 

Now, one could argue: “what’s the big deal?” If the Chinese government doesn’t want its citizens to see violent content, then what’s the harm? And perhaps that argument could be made if that was the extent of their censorship.  

However, this is not as far as it goes. 

CNN reported that in 2016, China “banned the portrayal of ‘abnormal sexual behavior,’ including gay and lesbian relationships in TV and online shows.” 

Their actions are made perfectly clear with the edits they demanded for the Chinese release of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic made for the band Queen in 2019. 

Roughly three minutes of LGBT content was removed from the film’s Chinese release, including scenes of Rami Malek’s character kissing other men, being confronted about his homosexuality, as well as the removal of the word “gay” entirely. 

These cuts created some plot holes through the film, further ruining the viewing experience for the Chinese viewers. 

The United States claims to be a leader in freedom of expression, which includes progressive attitudes towards the LGBT community. Yet if we allow ourselves to chip away and repackage our art, simply for cold, hard cash, then how can we claim ourselves to be progressive leaders? 

When you consider the small steps the People’s Republic had taken towards equality in the past two decades, this is a big step backward for them and arguably for the United States as well, for being complicit in such behavior.  

It is also worth noting that movies aren’t the only American media that gets censored in China, and these changes are not the only ones that affect the content China sees. 

Video games are an increasingly popular form of entertainment these days, growing to have almost as much influence as movies themselves. And just like movies, China has a massive hand in it. 

Like the film industry, China also holds the second-largest video game market, following the United States. Although the restrictions they impose on video games aren’t nearly as harsh as the ones they place on movies, there are still certain topics that the People’s Republic would never allow in their media depictions. 

In August, the major American video game company, Activision, announced its new title “Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War.”  The game’s trailer showed several clips of events from the Cold War, one of which included a very brief snippet of the Tiananmen Square protests. 

Well, apparently not brief enough. 

The trailer drew anger from mainland China and was promptly banned by the authorities. Desperate to not lose out on Chinese sales, Activision gave in to the government’s demands, cutting the content in half.

We can’t yet know what aspects of the actual game will be changed for China, but I believe this is most definitely a sign of things to come. A game made in the United States about the Cold War being censored by communist China. Now that is certainly ironic.

Ultimately, the U.S. media censorship in China may seem minor on the surface, but the ramifications of such actions could lead down a dark path for both the U.S. and China. 

In response to the edited version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” airing in China, Chinese LGBT activist Fan Popo put it best, “If everyone becomes content with this kind of ‘victory,’ then the whole world will always submit to authority, creators won’t be respected and there will be no protection for the interests of the audience.”

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  1. Ron Oertel

    The United States claims to be a leader in freedom of expression, which includes progressive attitudes towards the LGBT community. Yet if we allow ourselves to chip away and repackage our art, simply for cold, hard cash, then how can we claim ourselves to be progressive leaders?

    Notwithstanding the actions/gestures that the U.S. might (or might not) be able to impose (e.g., on private companies), perhaps the bigger reason is that the U.S. doesn’t control China.  Nor is China dependent upon the United States.

    In the future, China will be the world leader.  If it isn’t, already.

    There are bigger problems around the world that the U.S. doesn’t control.  In fact, the U.S. can’t even address its own problems, at times.

    A lot of the reason for the popularity of Trump is that he claims to be willing to take on China. (Just pointing it out, not “judging” it, or indicating support, or anything else.)

    In any case, look what he’s doing with Tik Tok, for example. (Though some may believe he’s doing that for other reasons.) Regardless, I can’t imagine another president doing this.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Some might think that universities might turn a “blind eye” to risks, as well:

      And on a broader level, some might argue that universities are “helping” China become a world leader, by educating their students. (I’m surprised that they haven’t already created better universities than the U.S. has.)

  2. Alan Miller

    Great article. Thanks for not being gentle on the Chinese regime, nor on American companies coddling China for money.  This is best summarized in a quote from the South Park episode on this topic:

    You’ve got to lower your ideals of freedom if you want to suck on the warm teet of China

    There’s also American “censorship” of future movies based on quotas based on progressive politics.  I put censorship in quotes, cuz it only matters if one considers being eligible for an Oscar important, and maybe no one should anymore.  As explained by Bill Maher in this six-minute clip:

    The Vanguard has really improved over the last few days.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I do see a shift in the Vanguard.

        Less interest from David in writing articles (and commenting on them, himself), and less interest from non-student commenters. Leaving the “other” blog as the “community’s” blog – but one which does not operate as often, nor does it function as a business. As such, it might not offer an experience that students can “reference” as well, later.

        The Vanguard will increasingly be written by a variety of students, whom David can leverage. But, it won’t be as representative of the local concerns of non-student Davisites, and will likely be less “combative”.

        Actually, I think it’s a good shift, for the Vanguard (and for David, personally).

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