The “front page of the Internet” is the latest battle ground in the fight over control of global culture. Chinese tech giant Tencent recently invested $150m in Reddit. This investment sparked virtual protests and outrage across the social platform, with images of Tiananmen Square flooding Reddit’s front page. The threat of Chinese censorship was feeling all too real on a site that had historically embraced the extremes of free speech.
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman assured users that “Our governance didn’t change during this round, which means we didn’t add anyone to the board, and our policies won’t be changing either.”. That is likely true…for “this round”. The truth is, to really understand China’s influence over U.S. culture, Silicon Valley just needs to look south.
Hollywood is the original cultural capital, broadcasting American ideals and cultural norms to the rest of the world since the late 1930’s. Over the last decade, Chinese firms have been making substantial investments in Hollywood. As part of China’s influence strategy, these investments typically follow a three step process:
- Chinese investors provide a welcome source of financing for U.S. film studios. In an effort to appease their financiers, U.S. studios self-censor and ensure their films are less critical of China. According to the New York Times, “As recently as two decades ago, major Hollywood movies were sharply critical of China. “Seven Years in Tibet,” which depicts Chinese soldiers brutalizing Tibetans, was one of the top 100 grossing movies of 1997”. Once the Chinese investment rolled in to Hollywood, however, the criticism stopped.
- In order to release U.S. blockbuster films in China, studios are often asked to add Chinese movie stars and locations to their productions. This request is seemingly harmless, and even a logical business choice. Plus, it’s the law in China.
- Chinese censors will review US scripts for unsanctioned material and request rewrites (or reshoots) if they don’t find the material acceptable. After a few rounds of this process, most producers, writers and directors knowingly exclude “forbidden” concepts without even being asked. The 2010 remake of Red Dawn, for example, created an uproar from Chinese state-run news after a script leak revealed that China was to be depicted as the enemy.
Eventually, the studio digitally removed all references to the Chinese army in the film, and replaced them with the North Korean army. According to the The Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, ”Without a single word from Chinese authorities, the U.S. studio spent another $1 million to re-edit its film. One cannot help but marvel about the rising power of China, even though it is sheer market power this time.” One cannot help but marvel at the state-run communication brinkmanship either.
For China, these Hollywood investments aren’t specifically about censoring. Censorship is a feature of the larger strategy: to spread the story of China (China’s version, of course) and make it an important part of the global culture. The New York Times reported that “President Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized the need to ‘tell China’s story well’ — to make sure a coherent, compelling and, most important, Communist Party-sanctioned narrative of China’s rise to power reaches global audiences.”
To be clear, the United States has utilized a similar strategy for decades. If you want an F-22 fighter jet to appear in your blockbuster film, the U.S. Military reviews the script and makes changes, if necessary. Look no further than the global box office for the past four decades to see how those U.S. government-sanctioned stories spread globally, and at an unprecedented scale.
Media and entertainment are the primary non-violent means to uphold and instill American values locally, and spread them globally. America is an expert at telling the story of capitalist democracy — and it’s big business too. The global Media & Entertainment (M&E) market reached $1.9 trillion in revenue in 2016. China is the second largest consumer of U.S. M&E, spending $190b in 2016, right behind the United States.
Furthering Xi’s goal to tell China’s story, Chinese tech companies (with Tencent leading the pack) have made significant investments in major U.S. entertainment technology platforms, including:
- Riot Games, makers of League of Legends (100% owned by Tencent)
- Supercell (100% owned by Tencent)
- TikTok (100% owned by ByteDance via its Music.ly acquisition)
- Epic Games, makers of Fortnite (40% owned by Tencent)
- Snap (17% owned by Tencent)
- Spotify (7.5% owned by Tencent)
- Reddit (5% owned by Tencent)
These investments are the first step in China’s playbook to spread its cultural influence. Between League of Legends, Fortnite, Spotify and Reddit, Tencent has significant influence over American youth (Gen Z in particular). These entertainment properties represent over half a billion monthly active users, and millions of minutes watched on YouTube and Twitch, in the case of Riot and Epic.
In September 2018, the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), a Chinese censorship office that vets new games for inappropriate content, stopped approving all new games. Their stated goal was to identify ways to limit the time kids spent playing games, citing a concern about eyesight problems. Because of this ban, Fortnite isn’t yet allowed in China.
While the proclaimed eyesight concerns are dubious, Chinese officials clearly have a different perspective on video games than most U.S. citizens and politicians. When there is a difference in values, the second step in China’s strategy begins. This is already in play with Google, Microsoft and Apple, who have made major concessions in order for their products to be available on the Chinese market. Alphabet, for instance, has been working on a censored version of Google search for China. This Google project has been highly criticized, because Americans see this action as going directly against American culture and values.
Culture is a slippery concept in our paradoxical world, where a handful of mega corporations control our entertainment diet. However, pervasive individualism is a defining feature of the Millennial generation. American culture is just as much NASCAR as it is Marie Kondo or Fortnite, with little overlap. But culture is also a set of shared values, however nebulous. Beneath these values is a commonality that stems from living in a liberal democracy. The liberal democratic order is what likely allows for easy cultural exchanges between countries like Japan and the European Union. With China, that commonality just isn’t there.
There’s no doubt that entertainment has the power to change society. People like to think of societal changes as slow, organic movements, instead of calculated influence campaigns. They want to experience other cultures, while basking in the safety of our familiar American ideals and norms. Do we have a right to be subsumed by the culture of our choice, or does culture just sweep through society, unable to be controlled? Ultimately, if America is no longer the top exporter of culture, what becomes of our identity?