China occasionally demands edits for a movie to be shown, and folks in Hollywood are usually willing to go along to get along; this is why Quentin Tarantino deserved so much praise for refusing to cut a scene about Bruce Lee after his daughter complained to Chinese censors about the legendary martial artist and actor’s portrayal in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Other productions were less brave; ironically, America’s greatest fighter pilot, reborn in Top Gun: Maverick, bowed to Chinese pressure by removing the Taiwanese and Japanese flags from Maverick’s flight jacket.
But Maverick’s preemptive airbrushing might have been an example of another insidious side-effect of China’s malign influence. More dangerous, and harder to quantify, than the edits demanded are the movies that simply never get made. Movies that studios pass on for fear of angering Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. Movies that would get locked out of the lucrative Chinese market—movies that might even get a studio’s whole slate locked out of the Chinese market. “The big story is not what’s getting changed, but what is not ever even getting greenlit,” Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, told PEN.
That sort of comment always makes me think of Richard Gere, an outspoken advocate for Tibetan rights who hasn’t quite disappeared from the big screen but certainly hasn’t enjoyed the sort of career an actor of his stature and caliber might expect as he enters his golden years.