Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), the chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, led a delegation of lawmakers last week for meetings in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, with an eye toward gathering information on how the two California-centric industries interact with Beijing.
Their agenda in the entertainment industry included a meeting with Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger, and later a meeting with Chris Fenton and other producers, executives and content creators who have done business in China.
Lawmakers Meet With Bob Iger, Hollywood Creatives To Express Concerns Over China Censorship And Beijing’s Influence
A topic raised: The editing of movies to appease Chinese film authorities, as well as the practice of “self-censorship,” or producers crafting their movies with an eye for what will make it into the country’s marketplace.
Gallagher has previously said that planned to call on Iger, along with other figures like NBA commissioner Adam Silver, to testify at an upcoming China committee hearing. The congressman, though, now says that he has not yet decided whether a high-profile congressional hearing would be next.
With the obvious First Amendment concerns, he acknowledges that the committee can’t legislate Hollywood decisions or what it makes. But he suggests that the attention paid to the issue could put “steel in the spine of a lot of American studios and American companies that are finding themselves in very difficult positions because they’re doing business in China.”
The committee’s work reflects a changing atmosphere toward China by lawmakers in both parties, but there also are some in the industry sounding notes of caution amid the more hardline stances. Some experts, while recognizing the problem, say it would be a mistake to take an action like limiting U.S. exports to China, as Beijing would fill the void and gain global market share at America’s expense.
Gallagher was joined in the industry meetings by the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorth (D-IL), who declined comment at this point.
Deadline spoke with Gallagher on Tuesday.
DEADLINE: In your meetings with Hollywood figures, were there any major surprises you came away with?
REP. MIKE GALLAGHER: The biggest surprise, from those who are making movies and trying to sell them into the Chinese market, was just how aggressive the Chinese seem to have gotten in the last three years at shutting off access to the market, as well as how challenging it is even if you’re granted one of the 34 licenses or whatever to have your movie play in China. Just how hard it is to do business there. … It seems like there’s sort of this natural shift, based on that sort of predatory behavior by the CCP, in the industry to just stop assuming that in order to make money, you have to get access to China. We had multiple industry reps tell us that on their P&L statement, under China, they’re now putting in a big zero, just because that’s the way things have trended in recent years. … The other thing that surprised me is just how there’s still a genuine fear of reprisal in Hollywood. I posed the question at one point, “If you were asked in public, is there a genocide happening in Xinjiang, how would you answer that question?” Everybody that I posed that to admitted they would be very reticent to answer it honestly, because they know that it wouldn’t just be China retaliating against that particular movie production. They would retaliate against the entire studio, and they would try to do to that studio what they’ve done to various actors who have supported the Tibetan cause in the past, like, for example, Richard Gere and others. I know that probably sounds obvious to you, but it was surprising to me as someone from Wisconsin who rarely has interactions with Hollywood.
DEADLINE: My understanding is you posed some questions to Bob Iger about the filming of Mulan in [Xinjiang] province.
GALLAGHER: Obviously that incident created a lot of controversy, and I think a lot of my constituents thought, “What the heck? Why is is Disney, who all of our kids love, why are they bowing down and thanking regional officials for their help when these regional officials are complicit in genocide. It seems like an un-American thing to do.” Disney claims that, having seen that blow up in their faces, they changed their processes. That was a decision made by the director or the producer, higher headquarters at Disney didn’t approve it, so now they have some process for approving things like that. We’ll see. I don’t think they were lying to me about that. I think it is more fear of the political backlash in America than anything else that’s forcing them to change their behavior.
There’s really two issues. One is, let’s say you make a movie or a TV show. You submit it to the Chinese censors in order to get it into China. And then they come back and they say, “Well, you need to change this. You can’t have this scene where your kids are protesting because we don’t like the idea of citizens and protests.” And then you make a thorny decision about, OK do we compromise our creative vision or our storyline so we can make money in China? And that’s a case by case basis that each studio is going to have to deal with. But then there’s this other more concerning issue of self-censorship, which is on the front end of making a movie. If you know you want access to China, what choices are you making with your casting, when you are finalizing the script? What creative choices are you making on the front end in order to proactively appease a Chinese censor that you wouldn’t otherwise make? And obviously we’ve had a lot of high-profile incidents … originally Top Gun: Maverick taking the Taiwan flag off of Maverick’s jacket. The Transformers movies edited to make the Chinese military look like the hero. … But getting at this issue of self-censorship. It’s really hard, and I think it’s really pernicious. And nobody we met with denied that some form of it was happening. I think it’s very real. And even though people are waking up to how difficult it is to do business in China, I still think it is happening in the industry.
DEADLINE: My understanding is that in terms of the editing of these movies, Bob Iger said Disney is trying to balance cultural and political requests. But they don’t always get it right. What was your reaction to that?
GALLAGHER: I don’t want to characterize anything he said. I’m gonna talk about what I said. But my understanding is that there’s really no silver-bullet solution to this question of censorship in China. If you’ve made the decision that you’re going to try and do business in China, and you want your movie screen there, they feel like they evaluate it on a case-by-case basis, and they claim they’re not going to do anything for political reasons and that they’re not going to do anything that compromises the integrity of their story, or the integrity of their creative process. But again, you’re kind of talking about two different things. One thing is taking the notes that a Chinese sensor comes back with and making a decision as to whether or not you’re going to change something. And the other thing is self-censorship on the front end. What choices are they already making, knowing that they don’t want to offend China, when they decide to embark on a project? Ask yourself: When was the last time a movie featured a Chinese villain? I can’t think of one. Maybe that’s evidence that self-censorship is happening.
DEADLINE: What can the committee do when it comes to things like self-censorship? What is the role of the committee?
GALLAGHER: It’s not obvious to me that we could legislate a fix to this. You don’t want Congress to be in the business of telling Hollywood what stories can and can’t be made. Where the federal government might have a role is if movie studios or projects want access to military resources, as they often do, to make their movies, you know, there’s a unit in the Pentagon that helps movies on a case-by-case basis. … If you want that help from the United States government, then I think the United States government has the right to say, “OK, then we don’t want your movie to be pro-CCP, anti-American propaganda.” But beyond that, I don’t think we should get in the business saying, “You can’t do X. You can’t do Y.” [The latest defense authorization bill, passed in December, includes restrictions on such Department of Defense cooperation].
The committee has a role in exposing the the costs and benefits and difficult choices that companies and industries make in getting access to the Chinese market, and exposing the way in which the Chinese Communist Party uses access to the market to advance their broader geopolitical ambitions and how aggressive they can be in terms of economic coercion. One thing we should say, even if we can’t legislate it, is that it’s one thing for a studio or company to edit a film to get access to particular market. And it’s not just China. It happens in the Middle East, it happens in other countries. I understand that. It may offend me in some cases, but I do. What we absolutely cannot allow to happen is for the CCP-approved version to become the only version, the global version. It’s clear to me after our conversations that that is really what the Chinese Communist Party wants, is for them to be able to censor, not only the version that gets seen in China by Chinese citizens, but the version that gets seen globally. They don’t want anybody to know that there’s a genocide happening in Xinjiang province. They don’t want anyone to know there’s a cultural genocide happening in Tibet. That’s ultimately what they’re after. And so I think the committee’s asked us is really to expose the malign influence of the CCP, and the way in which various industries get pressure. And I think is we do our work the right way, and if we do it in a bipartisan way, maybe it puts steel in the spine of a lot of American studios and American companies that are finding themselves in very difficult positions because they’re doing business in China.
DEADLINE: Do you still plan on calling Bob Iger to testify? You have mentioned that before.
GALLAGHER: This was the first engagement that we’ve had. It’s a conversation we want to continue. I learned a lot from this interaction. I have some some unanswered questions that we’ll be following up with. I haven’t yet decided what the best forum for that continued engagement is, whether it’s behind the scenes, candid conversation, or whether it’s a formal exchange of letters or whether it’s formal hearings. So I’m not yet ready to announce any future hearings on this. The conversation has just started. It’s nowhere near ending.
DEADLINE: Were you satisfied with what you heard from Iger?
GALLAGHER: I’m glad he was willing to do the meeting. I’m glad he gave us an insight into how they think about censorship in China and how they do business in China and how they think about the role that American soft power and Disney plays in China. I’m genuinely interested in understanding his worldview and their worldview. And where we disagree, I’m interested in pulling the thread on those areas of disagreement.
One thing I’ve been thinking about since we talked is that there seems to be this this persistent belief that by having Disneyland Shanghai, expanding the number of facilities we have there, that’s sort of like planting an American flag on Chinese soil and good things will happen as a result of that. I understand the logic of that sort of soft-power argument. But we now have two decades of evidence to suggest that it really isn’t working in terms of improving our overall relationship with China and that Xi Jinping is growing more aggressive. And one thing I’m always curious [about]: It seems people in Iger’s position who have done a lot of business in China, and have met Xi Jinping on multiple occasions — and I haven’t, so maybe he knows something I don’t — tend to think that the likelihood of Xi Jinping invading Taiwan by force is much lower than I think it is. And I sort of take Xi Jinping at face value when he talks, not to American businessmen, but to his own party members and says, “No, we’re going to reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force if necessary.” So I always leave these meetings just puzzled as to why our perspectives are so different on that. And that’s not just Disney. That’s Wall Street. That’s a lot of people. And it could be that I’m wrong. And I’m sure they’re looking at me as a sort of crazy, hawkish Republican who has a military-centric view of the world. So there are two areas where I sort of felt like we sort of agreed to disagree. But again, I hope we can continue the conversation. My 2 1/2-year-old daughter is addicted to Disney princesses, even though she has never seen a movie. So I have a personal interest in ensuring that Disney acts like an American company that champions American values.
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