Richard Gere hasn't starred in a blockbuster Hollywood movie since he played Edward Lewis, the rakish corporate raider, in Pretty Woman. And he hasn't appeared in a studio movie in almost 15 years. Instead, the one-time Sexiest Man Alive has had to settle for roles in comparatively low-budget indie flicks. Why is that, you ask? Well, China.
In 1993, Gere took to the stage at the Oscars to present the award for best art direction and gave what proved to be a career-limiting speech about China's disregard for universal human rights. Looking out over the assembled Hollywood elite, Gere wondered if Deng Xiaoping, then the former leader of the People's Republic, was watching the broadcast knowing "what a horrendous, horrendous human rights situation there is in China". As if that wasn't enough to shatter the Communist Party honcho's glass jaw, Gere went on to talk about sending "love and truth and a kind of sanity to Deng Xiaoping right now, in Beijing".
The episode and its aftermath, which Isaac Stone Fish discusses in his new book, America Second: How America's elites are making China stronger, illustrates the influence China has come to wield in the United States. Upset at Gere's comments - as well as a handful of movies about Tibet - and emboldened by its newfound economic clout, China began dictating the terms, quite literally, to a film industry that was increasingly desperate to access the burgeoning Chinese market.
Stone Fish, who describes himself as pro-China ("inasmuch as one can be for or against any country"), details a series of disturbing developments over the late 1990s which reveal Hollywood's willingness to produce propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party.
The turning point, according to the author, was the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. The script was rewritten to please the Chinese with input from none other than Henry Kissinger, alleged war criminal and high-priced apologist for China's appalling human rights record.
However, as galling as the Party's direct intervention in the production of Hollywood movies may be, what's more concerning is the shameless kowtowing that characterises Tinseltown's approach to Beijing today. Filmmakers have become so adept at self-censorship, they just don't go near scripts that could upset Party officials. What that means, in effect, is the Party now has a monopoly on the portrayal of China in film, something that has long been the propagandists' objective.
Of course, China's rise under Party rule has been neither peaceful nor inevitable. The Chinese government's repression of its own people didn't end with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, an extraordinary act of state violence the Party would like you to refer to as "the June Fourth incident". Today, the Chinese government is engaged in the systematic detention and torture of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, Tibetans are still denied freedom of religious expression while in Inner Mongolia, the government is pursuing assimilation through the curtailing of Mongolian language classes in schools. As for China's economic ascendancy, the country was an agricultural backwater until fairly recently, whose rise to superpower status only really began when it was admitted to the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
America Second is an effort to reveal the myths China peddles in order to distract elites from less savoury truths and, ultimately, advance its own interests. This "public opinion warfare" is conducted with the help of willing agents, or "friends" in Party parlance, and Smith Stone discusses three areas of society where they're especially effective in shaping the way we think about China - academia, film and politics.
With the help of the United Front Work Department, the well-resourced Party organ tasked with influence operations, Beijing curries favour with American execs whose profit motives incentivise them to overlook the nastiness in Xinjiang; denies visas to academics whose research runs counter to Party narratives; seeks to put underfunded grad students on the payroll, and showers visiting officials with what Kissinger has referred to as "the Grade A treatment".
Of course, the United States isn't Beijing's only target. China's interference in Australia's domestic affairs has received some media attention in recent years - Sam Dastyari, anyone? - but arguably not enough.
At a time when China is seeking to bend the international order to its will, there's a case to be made for resisting Beijing's unrelenting interference in our local media, universities and civil society. America Second offers a few tips on how to do that "without being Trumpian or racist".
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