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China Is Trying to Improve Its Global Image — and Using Hollywood to Do It

A new book, Soft Power With Chinese Characteristics: China’s Campaign for Hearts and Minds, examines China’s efforts to improve its global image through film, branding, news media, and promotion of Chinese language and culture. The book was co-edited by Professor Ying Zhu (College of Staten Island), along with Kingsley Edney and Stanley Rosen. 

The term “soft power” from the book’s title refers to a nation’s ability to influence social and cultural norms, as opposed to the “hard power” of military or economic might. In the book’s foreword, Joseph Nye argues that “the unilateral retreat of America’s soft power under President Donald Trump” created an opportunity for China, which now broadcasts its views in 140 countries and 65 languages, and distributes an English-language supplement, China Watch, via 30 newspapers including The Wall Street Journal.

Zhu contributed a chapter to the book exploring the “soft power” of film and China’s changing relationship with Hollywood. She writes that Chinese officials began complaining about Hollywood’s offensive portrayals of China and Chinese individuals going back to the 1920s and ‘30s. In 1929, a Chinese censorship committee began formally rooting out American films that insulted China, resulting in a complicated process for foreigners to shoot in China. China even demanded an in-house censor be present in Hollywood for the editing of a film of Pearl Buck’s blockbuster Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth, which was set and shot in China. 

China banned Hollywood films between 1950 and 1994, but today China is on the verge of overtaking North America as the world’s largest film market. To sell as many tickets in China as possible, Zhu writes, Hollywood now routinely panders to Chinese audiences, sometimes “at the expense of Western cultural principles.” Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, which featured Chinese products, landmarks, and cameos by Chinese pop stars, sold $300 million in tickets in China, compared to $244 million in the U.S. Other examples of Hollywood currying favor with Chinese audiences abound. In The Martian, the China National Space Administration supported a rescue mission. After a Chinese regulator complained, Mission: Impossible III expunged a scene that showed underwear hanging on a Shanghai clothesline. And the invaders in Red Dawn were changed from Chinese soldiers to North Koreans. 

Despite these tokens and compromises, the U.S. is still way ahead when it comes to pushing American culture globally via movies. But China has a new tactic: Instead of collaborating with Hollywood, China is simply buying Hollywood “expertise, technology and talent” to make its own movies. So far these films have not shown broad global appeal, and Zhu questions if the day will come when China exercises soft power by overtaking “Hollywood as the global alpha dog in box office and influence.”

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Beyond SUM

Work By

Ying Zhu (Professor, Cinema Studies) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

College of Staten Island

Bonus Content

"The American Interest" (Hard Truths About China’s “Soft Power”)