In the war of 2034, China has won the first battle without firing a shot

·7 min read

`Retired four-star Adm. Jim Stavridis has a hot property on his hands.

Stavridis is the co-author of a critically acclaimed bestseller, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, a scarily plausible imagining of how the United States and China could be drawn into a war and how badly it could turn out for both sides.

With a cast of complex, finely drawn characters and true-to-life depictions of current and future military capabilities, it’s just the sort of made-for-Hollywood technothriller that seems destined for a big or small screen near you.

The book had been out only a few months, when sure enough, Stavridis's phone rang.

“I was called by the CEO of one of the largest studios in the country on a Friday who said, ‘I'm reading the book. I love it. The only question in my mind is whether we're going to do a movie or we're going to do a miniseries. Who's your agent?” he said.

As Stavridis recounted last month on the podcast Chatter on Books, he spent the weekend scrambling to get an agent with experience negotiating movie rights and called the CEO back on Monday.

But by then, something had changed.

“Bad news,” said the CEO. “I read to the end of the book, and you know, I just can't sell this in China.”

Stavridis may yet see his work of cautionary fiction, written in the spirit of classic Cold War novels such as On the Beach or Fail-Safe, turned into a movie or streaming series. Still, for now, the unseen hand of Chinese censorship has killed the project without lifting a finger.

Chinese box office revenues are expected to reach $15.5 billion next year, eclipsing the U.S. box office total, which before the pandemic was approximately $11.4 billion, according to PEN America, an advocacy group for literary and artistic freedom.

Consequently, the massive Chinese market is so keenly desired by U.S. media moguls that any hint Beijing might be offended is enough for producers to self-edit their scripts or scrap projects altogether.

The word most often used to describe this obeisance to China is “kowtow,” which, unironically, comes from the historical Chinese custom of bowing down in worship or submission.

“It's not right,” says Stavridis. “China should not get a vote on whether or not we produce artistic content, let alone works of nonfiction, let alone drive our ships through the high seas in the South China Sea. We gotta be careful we don't get canceled by China.”

Examples of China effectively expunging any unpleasant truth from major motion pictures are rife, including removing Taiwanese and Japanese flags from Tom Cruise's iconic leather bomber jacket in the Top Gun sequel to Sony Pictures cutting a scene in the James Bond movie Skyfall in which a Chinese security guard is killed and Paramount Studios demanding dialogue Brad Pitt’s zombie movie World War Z be changed so that the fictional zombie virus did not originate in China.

But fear by studios that they’ll be blacklisted if any of their movies don’t depict a sanitized picture of China that comports with the image promoted in the ruling party’s propaganda means that most censorship happens, as in the case of Stavridis’s novel, in the “pitch phase.”

“I want to write a movie about the concentration camps in China. ... No one would buy the pitch,” said writer-director Judd Apatow in an interview with MSNBC last year.

“Instead of us doing business with China, and China becoming freer, what has happened is a place like China has bought our silence with their money,” said Apatow, one of the few Hollywood directors willing to criticize Beijing. “As a result of that, we never wake up our country or the world through art or satire.”

Actor Richard Gere says he’s been blacklisted due to his longtime activism on behalf of Tibet and because of his role in Red Corner, which depicted China’s police state and judicial system in an unflattering light.

Red Corner and the Brad Pitt movie Seven Years in Tibet, both made in 1997, are movies that a major studio could not make today.

The Chinese have an “amazing influence over Hollywood,” says Chris Fenton, a longtime Hollywood executive whose memoir, Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business, details his realization, over time, what a devil’s bargain it was for him to play by the Chinese Communist Party's rules.

“Quite frankly, myself and other cogs and wheels of the machine of the capitalism … weren’t really thinking about how what we were doing was detrimental to America,” said Fenton in a 2020 interview with Voice of America. “We just were doing a job. We were trying to get access to a market.”

Fenton said he began to grasp the insidiousness of China’s grip over America’s global conglomerates when he witnessed the backlash following a 2019 tweet by Daryl Morey, at the time the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, in support of Hong Kong.

That resulted in China demanding Morey to be fired and, for a time, a blackout of Rockets games in China.

The NBA called the deleted tweet “regrettable,” and some of NBA's major business partners lashed out at Morey, who was forced to apologize as a sop to China.

He’s now the president of basketball operations of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“That was a real wake-up call to me,” Fenton told VOA. “It was a wake-up call to the American public about how companies were engaging with China that wasn’t really part of being a patriotic American.”

Just last month, actor and professional wrestler John Cena had to apologize on Chinese social media for the “crime” of referring to Taiwan as a country while promoting the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise.

But it’s not just sports and entertainment that are now under Beijing’s thumb — it’s also America’s and the world’s most valuable and profitable company.

A recent New York Times investigation uncovered the extent Apple has capitulated to China’s demands to store its citizens' private data in China and has purged its app store of tens of thousands of apps to appease Chinese authorities.

“What we found is that Apple is also becoming a tool of the Chinese government’s vast censorship operation,” said New York Times reporter Jack Nicas on the podcast, The Daily.

“Over the past several years, Apple has begun to build this sophisticated system inside of its company that is designed to take down apps proactively before the Chinese government even asks,” Nicas said.

“Apple has created, essentially, a blacklist of terms that are banned in China. And these are things like independence for Tibet and Taiwan, the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, and the names of certain Chinese dissidents.”

The banned apps include those from foreign news outlets, gay dating apps, apps that circumvent the government’s internet restrictions, and apps that helped pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong organize.

“It essentially means that Apple, one of the most technologically advanced and richest companies in the world, is bringing to bear its technology and its resources to help the Chinese government censor the internet for Chinese citizens,” said Nicas.

Apple gave the New York Times a statement, which essentially said it had no choice if it wanted to continue to business in China, which makes the majority of Apple’s iPhones and is the No. 2 market for Apple products after the U.S.

“These decisions are not always easy, and we may not agree with the laws that shape them,” the statement read, “but our priority remains creating the best user experience without violating the rules we are obligated to follow.”

So far, the coronavirus pandemic is the defining event of the 2020s, and maybe someday, Hollywood will make a movie or limited series exploring how the plague ended up killing more than 1 out of every 500 Americans.

But unless movie producers grow a spine, you can bet the “based on a true story” plotline won’t include any reference that Beijing silenced scientists and covered up its role, much less any suggestion that the virus could have escaped from a lab in China.

Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.

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Tags: News, National Security, Foreign Policy, China, Movies, Media, Books, Hollywood, Apple, Censorship

Original Author: Jamie McIntyre

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