Political power may or may not flow through the barrel of a gun but artistic morality, it appears, can be determined by the size of the market. Recently leaked emails from some of Hollywood’s biggest studios have indicated that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s diktat — to “tell the China story well” — is being taken to heart. In the 2015 film Pixels, for example, the Great Wall was to be shown being eaten away at by digital creations brought to life. The scene was replaced, lest it cause the film to be banned in China. And in 2016, Marvel Studios changed the ethnicity of the “ancient one” (a Tibetan monk in the comic) in Doctor Strange to avoid offending Chinese government sentiments.
The artistic freedom fundamentalists, of course, may baulk at this capitulation to Big Brother. And wasn’t the market meant to give consumers a cultural buffet — including all the junk food they can eat — rather than a state-determined nutritional supplement? However, there are at least two factors that justify Hollywood’s new obsequiousness to its Far East. First, with the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, there has been a steady decline in box office collections in the US and its traditional overseas markets. And in the first quarter of 2018, collections from China surpassed the US. Second, the market and government in China, despite appearances, is not capitalist. The ordering of the economy, polity and culture, is driven ideologically and the financiers of films are unlikely to want to battle “socialism with Chinese characteristics” at the cost of their bottom lines.
For India, the state-driven control of sino soft power presents an interesting contrast to its own. The cultural capital of Indian film industries, the commodification of traditional medicine and yoga, etc, have helped the country expand its global presence. China’s model seems to be to let its economic might bend culture to its will. In fact, Pixels reportedly replaced the scene involving the Great Wall with one that shows the Taj Mahal being blown up.