Chinese culture has long been portrayed by the Western film and television industry in a negative light. Racism and stereotyping leads to many Asian cultures being lumped together and confused. Often times anything “Oriental” is referred to as Chinese, and cultural appropriation is not uncommon. Asian-American actors are often pigeonholed into the same types of roles, including the perpetual foreigner, the sidekick, or the nerd. For example, in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, Long Duk Dong was a foreign exchange student whose clueless and drunken behavior provided comic relief at the expense of reinforcing stereotypes. Long Duk Dong has become a symbol of racist caricatures that have showed up in film or television over the years.
Although some might argue that the days of Chinese stereotypes being outright mocked in Western television and films are over, this is not true. On October 3, the Internet blew up after Fox News ran a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor” where reporter Jesse Watters interviewed Chinese immigrants on the streets of New York City’s Chinatown. The cringe-worthy segment used loaded questions and Asian stereotypes to mock Asian Americans. The video contained references to martial arts, Mr. Watters playing with nunchucks, getting a foot massage, and asking if watches being sold on the street were “hot”. The use of subtitles for speakers with accented but perfectly intelligible English bought into the perpetual foreigner syndrome. When one woman says she doesn’t want to vote for Mr. Trump so she was voting for Mrs. Clinton, Watters responds with, “So China can keep ripping us off.” Reacting to the video with disgust, elected officials and activists protested outside the Manhattan headquarters of Fox News. Mayor Bill de Blasio called the segment “vile” and Councilman Peter Koo said, “Passing off this blatantly racist television segment as ‘gentle fun’ not only validates racist stereotypes, it encourages them” (1).
Racist film and television plays into the xenophobia and anti-China sentiment that many Americans have. Since the majority of Americans will never visit China and have little formal education on the topic, it is easy for them to believe what they see on television. Fear-mongering politicians like Donald Trump, Republican U.S. Presidential candidate, often use China as a scapegoat for problems in the United States and claim it is a threat and hindrance to America’s growth. China was mentioned 12 times during the first presidential debate, mostly by Mr. Trump, who says he will “win” against China if he becomes president (2). This sort of divisive rhetoric is highly problematic as it seeks to bring conflict to Sino-American relations. The Sino-American relationship has been described by world leaders and academics as the world's most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century (3). Having shared political, economic, and security interests, creating an “us vs. them” mentality and positioning the countries at odds against one another is dangerous. For the benefit of both countries, as well as the rest of the world, it is necessary for Sino-American relations to be pragmatic.
One of the shared American and Chinese interests is that of the film industry. In recent years China has had growing interest and influence in Hollywood. Measured by movie ticket sales and the massive theater building boom, China is expected to become the world's largest film market next year. Chinese companies also continue to increase their investments in entertainment properties. Dalian Wanda Group purchased the Burbank production company Legendary Entertainment earlier this year, owns the AMC movie theater chain, and agreed to buy Carmike Cinemas for $1.1 billion, which would create the world’s largest cinema chain (4). Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. is also teaming up with Wanda to market its films in China (5). Additionally, Hollywood’s highest-grossing director, Steven Spielberg, is working with Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. in a partnership that will help Mr. Spielberg’s Amblin Partners produce, finance, and distribute movies in China (6). In exchange, Alibaba will rely on Amblin to become a bigger part of Hollywood’s production and distribution scene (7).
Many people in the United States are worried about China’s growing influence in Hollywood. Sixteen members of Congress wrote a letter calling for scrutiny of Chinese investments in the U.S. film industry (8). These concerns are not misguided. In efforts to legitimize the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping has waged a soft-power campaign to improve China’s global reputation and increase its influence abroad. The campaign requires artists, filmmakers, writers, academics, and the media to “serve socialism” and show “positive energy” by offering uplifting messages about the party (9). A movie cannot play in China unless it is approved by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (10). American studios that want films distributed in China either submit to Beijing’s censors or self-censor. China’s poor history with respect toward human rights, its authoritarian governance, and mass censorship leads to legitimate concerns about the films the party will approve. Many people are worried about Chinese propaganda slipping into films as well as censorship of any criticism. Therefore, calls for scrutiny of Chinese investments and what films are produced are not wrong. Being a country that upholds creative freedom, the film industry needs to be careful about protecting itself against pressures from the Chinese Communist Party.
Despite this, the partnerships between China and Hollywood also have many benefits. As China is to become the leading film market, appealing to Chinese audiences is inevitable for American companies. The Chinese market is a place to make up for lost ground if a movie fares poorly in the United States. Many films that are expensive to make depend on the added revenue of overseas sales. Also, distribution partnerships are increasingly important for Hollywood studios, since they have little control over how a movie is marketed or released in China. By working with Chinese firms, American companies can have more control. China and Hollywood working together not only brings economic benefits, but cultural ones. In reference to his partnership with Alibaba, Steven Spielberg said, “We can do co-productions between our company and your company, and we can bring more of China to America, and more of America to China” (11). As the United States and China continue their bilateral relationship it is important for citizens of both countries to better understand each other’s culture to reduce xenophobia and racism. Growing Chinese influence in production should limit the racist and stereotypical portrayals of Chinese culture and people in Western film and television. Although scrutiny of Chinese propaganda is not mistaken, efforts to completely limit Chinese influence in film could precipitate dangerous federal regulation of culture. As China’s influence in Hollywood continues to grow, it is important that a pragmatic approach is taken to preserve favorable Sino-American relations.
(1) Stack, Liam. "Protest Against Fox Correspondent Accused of Racism for Chinatown Interviews." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 6 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
(2) DiChristopher, Tom. "Jack Ma: I'm Not Worried about Anti-China Sentiment on Campaign Trail." CNBC. NBCUniversal, 1 Sept. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
(3) Gul, Ferdinand A., and Haitian Lu. Truths and Half Truths: China's Socio-economic Reforms (1978-2010). Oxford: Chandos Pub., 2011. Print.
(4) Hammond, Ed, Anousha Sakoui, and Alex Sherman. "AMC's $1.1 Billion Carmike Deal Makes China Movie Powerhouse." Bloomberg. Bloomberg, 3 Mar. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
(5) Ma, Wayne, and Erich Schwartzel. "Sony and Wanda Team Up to Market Films in China." Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
(6) Abkowitz, Alyssa, and Erich Schwartzel. "Alibaba Goes to Hollywood in Deal With Steven Spielberg’s ..." Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc, 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
(8) Daly, Robert. "Hollywood’s Dangerous Obsession with China." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 7 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
(11) Abkowitz, Alyssa, and Erich Schwartzel. "Alibaba Goes to Hollywood in Deal With Steven Spielberg’s ..." Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, Inc, 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Image: © Waihs | Dreamstime.com - Shenzhen, China: Cinema Photo
Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.