Among the freedoms afforded to Hong Kong citizens after Britain gave up control in 1997 were freedom of speech and of the press. The result was a vibrant publishing industry that has produced a dizzying array of books, journals, newspapers, and magazines addressing every aspect of mainland China’s history, politics, and society. Indeed, without the publishers of Hong Kong, the world would know a lot less about China than it does—and the same is true of the thousands of mainlanders who, until recently, flocked to such popular Hong Kong bookstores as Causeway Bay and the People’s Recreation Community.
Today these bookstores are gone, along with nearly all of Hong Kong’s independent publishers. The courageous men and women who struggled to keep them alive have been effectively silenced. This crackdown, along with the many other issues that have brought 2 million protesters into the streets of Hong Kong, reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive efforts to bring the former British colony into line with President Xi Jinping’s 2017 decree that all forms of media would be consolidated and placed under the direct control of the Central Propaganda Department.
The fate of the Hong Kong booksellers has caused an outcry around the world, with independent news outlets and free-speech advocates warning of a return to totalitarianism. “It’s an attack on the publishing industry from all aspects,” declared Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch in a recent New York Times article.
This outcry is wholly justified. But as a longtime observer of a different medium that has also been losing ground to China’s censors, I have to wonder: Why isn’t there a similar outcry about China’s mounting attack on the film industry, not just in Hong Kong but also in the United States?
Over the years, the U.S. government has often praised and defended Hollywood films as a key component of American soft power—that is, as a storytelling medium that can, without engaging in blatant propaganda, convey American ideals, including free expression itself, to foreign populations around the world. But Hollywood has long since abandoned that role. Indeed, not since the end of World War II have the studios cooperated with Washington in furthering the nation’s ideals. Instead, the relationship today is purely commercial—on both sides. For example, Hollywood frequently enlists Washington’s help in fighting piracy and gaining access to foreign markets. But even while providing that help, Washington refrains from asking Hollywood to temper its more negative portrayals of American life, politics, and global intentions. (The exception is the Department of Defense, which insists on approving the script of every film produced with its assistance.)
Things are different in China. In that country, which is fast becoming the world’s largest and most important movie market, the ruling Communist Party exercises no such restraint. On the contrary, Beijing has a very clear idea of how a film industry should operate—namely, as an essential part of the effort to bring public opinion in alignment with the party’s ideological worldview. To that end, Beijing has been using Hollywood’s insatiable need for investment, and its vaulting ambition to reach a potential audience of 1.4 billion people, to draw it into China’s orbit.