Imagine if a political party announced a new system of control over Hollywood that banned any negative portrayals of that party, and any negative portrayals of its police force or military. Imagine if it also banned positive portrayals of religion or any depiction of the supernatural, and if it banned any films that showed people violating its laws.

Hollywood is actually already following all of these requirements. But it’s not doing this on behalf of any U.S. political party. Rather, it is censoring movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in hopes of getting films into the Chinese market. And these films altered to appease the Chinese regime are often the same ones being shown in U.S. theaters.

Chinese companies are now buying key businesses in the American film industry, while many American filmmakers are partnering directly with Chinese companies and working directly with CCP offices to censor and alter their films. The CCP is now gaining control over what Hollywood can and cannot produce.

The stated interest of Chinese leaders in influencing Hollywood goes far beyond mere censorship and profit. They are waging a cultural war, and their victims are American viewers and the creative freedom of an American icon.

Hollywood is America’s dream factory. More than any other cultural form, it shapes the American imagination. It gives us common ground for a national conversation, and, to a significant degree, our national character is formed through the medium of popular film. And now the CCP is inserting itself directly into the making of the stories we use to understand ourselves.

Perception Management

According to an Oct. 28, 2015, report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), “China views film as a component of social control,” and notes that when it comes to Chinese policies for regulating content in films, “the CCP’s concerns are positioned above all other interests.”

This position can be seen clearly in some of the films that have been censored or blocked due to the CCP’s systems of control.

[‘Men in Black 3′ was] forced to cut a scene in which civilians’ memories are erased, a scene that a Chinese newspaper wrote may have been perceived as a commentary on China’s internet censorship policies.

— US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

The 2013 film “Captain Phillips” features Tom Hanks as an American cargo ship captain who is rescued from Somali pirates by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs. The report states the CCP blocked it from being shown in China “because of the film’s positive portrayal of the United States and U.S. military.”

Tom Hanks (L) and Barkhad Abdi promote the film “Captain Phillips” in Los Angeles in September 2013. The movie was unable to appear in China, because it portrayed the U.S. military in a positive light. (Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Sony)

A scene in the 2006 film “Mission: Impossible 3,” starring Tom Cruise, showed clothes drying on a clothesline in Shanghai. It was removed from Chinese screenings, the report states, “because it was not a positive portrayal of Shanghai, despite the fact that the film was partially shot in Shanghai, where many people do not own dryers.”

The report notes the 2012 film “Men in Black 3” was “forced to cut a scene in which civilians’ memories are erased, a scene that a Chinese newspaper wrote may have been perceived as a commentary on China’s internet censorship policies.”

A list of similar cases could go on for some time, and could include the 2010 film “Karate Kid,” which, despite being made with heavy CCP oversight, ran into trouble because its villain was Chinese; and a 3-D release of the 1985 film “Top Gun,” which was rejected, the report states, “because it portrayed U.S. military dominance.”

According to Amar Manzoor, author of “The Art of Industrial Warfare,” the CCP’s use of films can be understood as similar to the way a company promotes its brand while attacking that of its key rival.

Manzoor used the 2014 film “Transformers: Age of Extinction” as an example. The action film featured at least 10 Chinese product placements—from real estate companies to computers to wine. He said, “From the media side they were looking for a Chinese presence within the American film industry, because they can get better penetration with American films than they can with just Chinese films.”

It plays into the broader idea, Manzoor said, that if you infiltrate a high-class culture, and place yourself in a perceived favorable position alongside it, it has the effect of improving the image of your own brand.

The CCP’s “brand” is one of human rights abuses, censorship, shoddy products, espionage, and authoritarian rule, but through censoring film, the Party aims at skewing international perceptions in its favor. It forces Hollywood not to show any of these negative elements and instead to give China a false, positive image. And it also forbids Hollywood films from giving a positive portrayal of the United States, the Chinese regime’s main competitor.

The best arts cause us to question, to think. They motivate us to consider new options, and the communists don’t want that.

— Ronald J. Rychlak, professor, University of Mississippi School of Law

According to Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, authoritarian regimes have been using films for political gain since the early 20th century.

“The entertainment industry is tremendously influential—go back and look at how the Soviets controlled movie theaters and ballet. The Nazis did the same thing,” Rychlak said.

Rychlak is well versed in the topic. He co-wrote the book “Disinformation” with Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc intelligence official to ever defect to the West, and details tactics used by communist regimes to create false narratives and alter perspectives.

“The best arts cause us to question, to think,” Rychlak said. “They motivate us to consider new options, and the communists don’t want that.

“Artists may talk about the power of art, but totalitarians really understand the power of art, because they abuse it.”

A System for Control

The filmmakers of “Iron Man 3” took many steps to appease the Chinese regime, which included them creating additional scenes and locations in the Chinese version, which featured Chinese actors and Chinese locations. (WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

Hollywood has been open to the CCP’s censorship because it believes there is a golden opportunity in the China market.

The CCP manipulates Hollywood’s desire to cooperate by limiting how many foreign films are allowed in, a quota system that violates the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Only 34 Western films may be shown in China each year, and so the Western studios are made to compete with one another for the CCP’s favor.

While SAPPRFT’s authority is intentionally broad, its mandate specifically includes provisions protecting the interests of the CCP.

— US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

The terms of entrance are strict. Hollywood must choose between getting a 25 percent cut of box office sales or selling their films to the CCP at a set price. The films are chosen by the Chinese state agency in charge of film censorship known as the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).

“While SAPPRFT’s authority is intentionally broad, its mandate specifically includes provisions protecting the interests of the CCP,” states the report, noting that the agency’s director, “like all SAPPRFT officials,” is a member of the CCP “with a long career as a propagandist.”

Eligibility for one of these 34 film slots, meanwhile, is a bit like Russian roulette, since the CCP isn’t consistent about what film content it allows and what it rejects. This leads filmmakers to go beyond the CCP’s surface-level standards and make more direct attempts to appease Chinese censors.

Leaked emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment exposed some of the thinking behind studios’ alterations to fit the CCP’s liking. According to a July 2015 report from Reuters, Sony executives removed a scene of the Great Wall being damaged and of a “Communist-conspiracy brother” hacker in the 2015 film “Pixels” because they feared the scenes would impact the film’s eligibility for the Chinese market. Scenes showing the Washington Monument, the Taj Mahal, and parts of Manhattan being destroyed were left in.

Chinese actor Wang Xueqi, who stars in the Chinese release of “Iron Man 3”, with an actor posing as Iron Man in front of Beijing’s old city gate during the promotion of the film. (DMG Entertainment)

“Even though breaking a hole in the Great Wall may not be a problem as long as it is part of a worldwide phenomenon, it is actually unnecessary because it will not benefit the China release at all. I would, then, recommend not to do it,” wrote Li Chow, chief representative of Sony Pictures in China, in a December 2013 email to senior Sony executives, according to Reuters.

Other films have taken similar measures. The 2012 film “Red Dawn” originally featured Chinese communists invading the United States, but this was changed to North Koreans.

Hollywood has another path to the China market besides self-censorship: working directly with Chinese companies on the films and granting CCP officials with SAPPRFT more direct oversight of the filmmaking process. Taking this approach means the films aren’t classified as foreign films.

The coproductions come with additional requirements, however. According to the USCC report, these can include “having at least one scene shot in China, casting at least one Chinese actor, receiving a minimum one-third of the movie’s total investment from Chinese companies, and, in general, illustrating ‘positive Chinese elements.’”

The 2013 film “Iron Man 3,” for which Disney partnered with China’s DMG Entertainment Group, took this approach. The filmmakers took heavy steps to appease the CCP, such as creating additional scenes and locations in the Chinese version that featured Chinese actors and Chinese locations. They also cast British actor Ben Kingsley as the villain named The Mandarin, a character that is Chinese in the comic books the film is based on.

If you’ve started to notice that Hollywood films are increasingly showing the United States in a negative light, as well as opposing religion and praising the Chinese regime, you’re not imagining things—these are requirements that the CCP has placed on Hollywood, and most major studios are following these requirements in order to get a spot in Chinese theaters.

And with Chinese companies on a spree of buying or partnering with foreign film assets, these forms of censorship could soon become even more prevalent.

China’s Shopping Spree

AMC Empire 25 in New York on Aug. 23, 2016. The Chinese company Dalian Wanda Group purchased AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. in 2012 for $2.6 billion. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

An AMC movie theater near Times Square on Aug. 23, 2016. The Chinese company Dalian Wanda Group purchased AMC Entertainment Holdings in 2012 for $2.6 billion. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

While Hollywood has been busy seeking out Chinese companies for partnerships to get an easier ticket to China, Chinese companies have been settings their sights on film assets abroad, deepening the CCP’s influence over the global film industry.

Dalian Wanda Group became the first Chinese firm to own a major Hollywood studio in January when it purchased Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion in cash. This followed its purchase of AMC Entertainment Holdings, which operates AMC Theaters—the second largest cinema chain in the United States—in 2012 for $2.6 billion.

It also owns Australian movie theater company Hoyts Group, leading European cinema operator Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group, and China-based Wanda Cinema Line, and there are reports of it trying to buy a 49-percent stake in Paramount Pictures.

Other major Chinese companies involved in targeting Western assets include Tencent, DMG Entertainment (DMG Yinji), Baidu, and the state-owned television outlet CCTV.

Many of these companies have opaque connections to the CCP, but regardless of how deep their ties do or do not go, most companies in China are required to have a CCP liaison. The state-run Chinese news outlet Xinhua recently published a report that stated this requirement, noting that “the Party constitution stipulates that organizations of more than three members” should have a CCP branch. This requirement also includes foreign companies with offices in China.

Regardless of whether or not the companies themselves have motives to promote the CCP, being based in China means they are held to the CCP’s laws—including its laws on censorship. And at the higher levels of the Chinese regime, the CCP has clearly stated its interest in using films and other forms of information and entertainment to strategically push its own agenda.

‘Culture Warfare’

Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.” The recent release of the 3-D version of “Top Gun” was banned in China because it “portrayed U.S. military dominance.” (Paramount Pictures)

In October 2012, former CCP leader Hu Jintao gave a speech at a party plenum that “some foreign media saw … as a declaration of war against Western culture,” as Asia Times noted.

Hu said that as a matter of strategy, many countries “strengthen their cultural soft power.” He went on to claim that “international hostile forces are stepping up their strategic attempts to Westernize and divide our country, and ideological and cultural fields are a focus of their long-term infiltration.”

He accused Western “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization” as the cause of pro-democracy movements and called on the CCP to “heighten our vigilance” and to “take effective countermeasures.”

Culture Warfare was just one of 12 strategies they laid out in what they called war with ‘no limits’ and ‘without morality.’

The speech coincided closely with Dalian Wanda Group’s 2012 purchase of AMC Theaters.

In a March 2012 report on Hu’s speech, Huffington Post noted: “One thing we can count on is a revamped effort at censorship, Big Brother surveillance, and thought control. This may sound like hyperbole, but it isn’t; President Hu Jintao has, in fact, been very blunt on these points.”

While such a strategy from the CCP may sound secretive and dubious, the CCP has actually been fairly loud with its rhetoric against U.S. entertainment and with its own strategies to counter this with “culture warfare.”

David Major, founder and president of the CI Centre, a U.S.-based company offering training in counter-intelligence, explained the nature of the CCP’s ideas behind culture warfare during a June 9, 2016, testimony to the USCC. He said culture warfare “means influencing the cultural biases of a targeted country by imposing your own cultural viewpoints.”

Major noted the strategy ties to a broader Chinese unconventional warfare system known as Unrestricted Warfare, detailed in 1999 by two Air Force colonels and political officers in the People’s Liberation Army. Culture Warfare was just one of 12 strategies they laid out in what they called war with “no limits” and “without morality.”

One of the CCP’s more recent strategies along these lines, known as the Three Warfares, pulls directly from the Unrestricted Warfare doctrine and focuses more specifically on perception management. The CCP’s Central Committee and the Central Military Commission approved the Three Warfares for use by the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army in 2003.

The Three Warfares are Psychological Warfare, Media Warfare, and Legal Warfare. In a March 2015 report, U.S. Special Operations Command explained the CCP’s use of these warfare concepts—as well as similar concepts used by Iran and Russia—and called on the United States to begin countering them.

The two parts of the Three Warfares strategy directly relevant to culture warfare are Psychological Warfare and Media Warfare. According to the report, Psychological Warfare “seeks to undermine an enemy’s operational ability by demoralizing enemy military and civilian populations” using systems including television, radio broadcasts, rumors, and other means. Media Warfare “seeks to influence domestic and international public opinion to build support for military actions and dissuade adversaries from actions contrary to China’s interests.”

It must be recognized we are in a full state of competition with American films. … This is about defending and fighting for cultural territory.

— Zhang Hongsen, head, Chinese agency in charge of film censorship

Legal Warfare, the third tier of the system, can be seen playing out in the CCP’s manipulation of international law by restricting imports on films, in violation of WTO rules.

Many public remarks by CCP leaders and military officers demonstrate how the Chinese regime views the strategic use of entertainment under the doctrine of Culture Warfare.

In December 2013, the Chinese military newspaper Zhongguo Guofangbao slammed a video game, “Battlefield 4,” for portraying a Chinese general as its villain. It accused the game of being “a new form of cultural penetration and aggression” that aimed “to discredit one country’s image in the eyes of other countries.” It also claimed that featuring a Chinese general as an enemy in the game would cause Western audiences to see China as the “common enemy.”

When the above statements are taken in context along with the CCP’s banning of films like “Captain Phillips” and the 3-D version of “Top Gun” for showing the U.S. military in a positive light, the strategic thinking becomes more clear.

In August 2014, the CCP began restoring 1930s films for what South China Morning Post called a “culture war” and “soft power push.” It noted the CCP said in June 2014 it would invest 100 million yuan (about $15 million) to fund 5–10 “influential films.”

Zhang Hongsen, the head of SAPPRFT, said, according to South China Morning Post: “It must be recognized we are in a full state of competition with American films. … This is about defending and fighting for cultural territory.”

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Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Michief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2. The U.S. Navy recently sent a warship to patrol near the Chinese regime’s man-made islands. (U.S. Navy)Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Michief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2. The U.S. Navy recently sent a warship to patrol near the Chinese regime’s man-made islands. (U.S. Navy)

The foundation of the Chinese regime’s legal case and strategy for exploiting the South China Sea rested on a supposed historical ownership—and on July 12, an arbitration court in The Hague declared that this foundation is false.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quickly shot back. A statement from its Foreign Ministry says it views the Tribunal’s decision as “null and void and has no binding force,” and says it “neither accepts nor recognizes it.”

In spite of the bluster issuing from Beijing, the CCP has lost its main line for propaganda and its best chance to establish a moral ground for its position on the South China Sea.

Yet, according to Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, “it’s important to recognize this issue isn’t over.”

A Battle of Deception

One of the main strategies the CCP has employed in the South China Sea is what it calls the “Three Warfares;” which are legal warfare, psychological warfare, and media warfare.

The strategy works by manufacturing “legal” arguments, creating psychological pressure on adversaries, and manipulating news coverage. The Office of Net Assessment, a Pentagon think tank, described the strategy in a May 2013 report as a “war-fighting process that constitutes war by other means,” and that uses deception as a way to “alter the strategic environment in a way that renders kinetic engagement irrational.”

Cheng said the CCP’s use of legal warfare “was not really a matter of what other legal authorities say.” He noted that already there are Chinese law professors and others trying to discredit the Tribunal, and saying it has been tainted or has no authority.

At its heart, the CCP’s Three Warfares is a strategy for disinformation—a form of propaganda that functions by manufacturing a lie with a grain of truth, then using this lie as a foundation to make seemingly legitimate arguments. A key goal of disinformation is to get coverage in otherwise credible news outlets and think tanks, which can then be used to make additional arguments.

In the South China Sea, this strategy has manifested in the CCP’s claims that it has historical ownership over nearly the entire region; which gives it the right to manufacture islands, declare defensive perimeters around its artificial islands, and to chase ships from other nations out of the region.

The Road Ahead

The Tribunal’s website went offline shortly after the announcement, but an archive of its press release is still available.

According to the press release, the CCP boycotted the Tribunal, but even in China’s absence, the Tribunal took steps to “test the accuracy of the Philippines’ claims,” it states. This included questioning the Philippines, appointing independent experts to “report to the Tribunal on technical matters,” and “obtaining historical evidence concerning features in the South China Sea and providing it to the Parties for comment.”

In the end, the Tribunal overwhelmingly found the CCP’s claims to be false. It said in the press release it “found that China’s claim to historic rights to resources was incompatible with the detailed allocation of rights and maritime zones” in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that any historic rights the CCP had to resources in the South China Sea were “extinguished by the entry into force of the Convention to the extent they were incompatible with the Convention’s system of maritime zones.”

The claims of various nations in the South China Sea. (VOA)

The claims of various nations in the South China Sea. (VOA)

Regardless of the decision, however, the CCP has repeatedly stated it would “neither accept nor participate in the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines,” according to the press release.

According to Cheng, the Chinese regime did not attend the hearings for the simple reason that “they knew their case was not going to stand up to current tenets of international law.”
But according to Cheng, “the Chinese were not going to make any concessions in the South China Sea before this, and they’re not going to now.”

He added that “there weren’t many countries that believed the Chinese position to begin with.”

Moving forward, it’s likely the CCP will make a new propaganda push to discredit the Tribunal, and it may try to manufacture a new disinformation line to base its claims on. It’s also likely the CCP will make a stronger push either with military strength or by starting more civilian ventures in the South China Sea.

The CCP has four masks it can wear in the South China Sea conflict: one for military intimidation, one for peaceful civilian ventures, one for financial gain, and another for strategic deception.

The ruling has put a dent in the CCP’s mask for strategic deception, but its other fronts remain largely unscathed.

“I think the Chinese are going to play the tourist card,” Cheng said, noting that already it has done tourist flights to the South China Sea. He said the CCP will also likely make new pushes with military power and may look for an economic component as well in order to justify its unlawful ventures in the region.

He noted that the CCP may also try a diplomatic approach, and build its own alliance, which could include Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei. He said it may offer these countries an agreement “to say, work with us you get something, oppose us you’ll get nothing.”

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Argentina’s coast guard encountered a Chinese trawler illegally fishing in its territorial waters in mid-March. The Chinese poachers ignored radio calls and repeated warning fire, and tried ramming the Argentinian ship.
Finally, the Argentinean coast guard did what few nations dare. According to New York Post, they fired shots at the boat’s hull. They rescued four of the crew members from the sinking ship, while the rest of the 28-member crew was picked up by another nearby Chinese fishing boat.
The Chinese regime has expressed outrage at the incident, but Argentina didn’t back down, and by doing so, it may set a precedent that other nations can turn to when facing Chinese belligerence in maritime disputes.
Indonesia soon followed with a hard-line approach to Chinese aggression. Indonesian authorities arrested a Chinese fisherman on March 19 in the Natuna Sea, near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, and had the Chinese fishing boat in tow.
A Chinese coast guard ship then rammed the fishing boat in tow, freeing it from the Indonesian ship, according to The Jakarta Post.
It’s not unusual for Indonesian authorities to arrest foreign fishermen for poaching in its waters, but the Chinese coast guard interfering with an arrest pushed them over the line.
Indonesian authorities brushed off Chinese accusations over the incident, and on March 21 the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti announced her office would summon the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia and demand an explanation.
The Chinese regime may have inadvertently drawn Indonesia into the South China Sea conflict, which they had little interest in prior to the incident—and their response was swift.
On March 31, the Indonesia defense minister said they would deploy U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets on the Natuna Islands—close to where the incursion with the Chinese coast guard took place, according to Bloomberg, to war off what he called “thieves.”
A few days later, Indonesia announced it would deploy air defense systems to the Natuna Islands, along with four special units to man the German-made Oerlikon Skyshield air defense system, according to IHS Jane’s.
Then on April 5, in a show of symbolic force, Indonesia destroyed 23 foreign ships caught poaching—something that’s also not uncommon for them, but the timing attracted attention. Its fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, said, according to The Diplomat, “I am impressed and laud China’s law enforcement apparatus. I hope they would also respect Indonesia’s laws.”
Vietnam’s ‘Rare’ Response
After the initial incident between China and Indonesia, Vietnam also joined in.
On March 31, Vietnam’s coast guard seized a Chinese refueling ship for illegally entering its territorial waters.
As Nikkei reported on April 3, the incident was “a rare move for Vietnamese authorities against a Chinese vessel.” The Chinese ship’s captain allegedly admitted his intrusion, and said his ship was carrying fuel for Chinese fishing boats operating in Vietnamese territory.
While it can’t be said for sure that one incident inspired the others, the timing lines up, and the incident with Vietnam, in particular, showed a new level of boldness while standing up against China’s incursions.
Zero Hedge noted that Vietnam seizing the Chinese ship was the “biggest territorial escalation between the two countries since 2014 when China towed an oil rig to disputed waters in the South China Sea in 2014, triggering dangerous boat ramming and anti-China riots in Vietnam.”
If a new zero tolerance approach really has developed among countries fighting back against China, it may bring an effective end to the current Chinese strategy for seizing territory in the South China Sea.
A Hole in China’s Strategy
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has two strategies for taking over the South China Sea—one designed around propaganda, and the other around military maneuvers.
On the propaganda side, the CCP us using what it calls the “Three Warfares.” These are legal warfare, psychological warfare, and media warfare. It basically means they accuse others of aggression and continue to repeat lines that they have legal rights to conquer the region.
Dean Cheng of The Heritage Foundation explained the tactic in a May 21, 2012, report. Regarding the legal warfare element, he writes, “Legal warfare, at its most basic, involves ‘arguing that one’s own side is obeying the law, criticizing the other side for violating the law [weifa], and making arguments for one’s own side in cases where there are also violations of the law.”
On the military side, the CCP is using what Chinese generals have call the “cabbage strategy,” where they rap the area up layer-by-layer. It’s similar in practice to the old Soviet “salami-slicing strategy.”
As part of the strategy, first the CCP sends in fishing boats, then buoys marking fishing territory, then coast guard ships to protect the fishing boats, then infrastructure to support the operations, and then they form a defensive perimeter to keep out foreign ships.
The strategy is designed to play out gradually, while appearing as benign as possible. It’s similar to the frog in boiling water analogy, where the water heats too gradually for the frog to notice—until it’s too late.
These strategies work well against countries that closely adhere to international laws and avoid drastic actions, but both have key flaws built into them.
The CCP’s propaganda tactic protects and tries to validate its maritime strategy. If the propaganda systems fails, then the maritime side loses its mask of legitimacy, and just looks like one country invading another’s territory.
MORE:CHINA SECURITY: Under Veil of Cybersecurity, China Looks to Govern the Global Internet
China’s propaganda systems can usually keep up, but they’ve only worked effectively when there are only a few incidents to respond to, and when its adversaries don’t react too aggressively or don’t fire back too hard against its propaganda.
The real irony with the CCP’s attempted takeover of the South China Sea is that it inadvertently caused other nations in the region—even many that historically haven’t gotten along—to form an alliance against China.
The recent incidents have raised the bar to a level where China’s strategies may not be able to hold up. Its

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