By Fareed Zakaria, CNN
It is the perfect summer blockbuster for audiences around the world – action
packed and not too taxing on the brain. The new Transformers movie broke the record
for July 4th tickets sales in the U.S. and it’s been smashing records in many of
the 110 countries around the world where it’s showing. It’s already made almost
half a billion dollars worldwide.
But there’s one country that it’s not playing in – China.
China doesn’t want its people to see Transformers 3 – at least not yet.
Can you believe it? Beijing has imposed a moratorium on new foreign
For almost a month, no new blockbusters produced outside China have been
released in China. Why? Well, instead of Transformers or Harry Potter, Beijing
really wants its people to watch something else – something quite
The Beginning of the Great
Revival released last month, is an extravagantly produced, state-sponsored
propaganda movie, which cost $12 million to make, a fortune by Chinese
standards. The film claims to have a cast of more than 100 top Chinese actors
playing an array of historical figures.
Among them Mao Tse-Tung or Chairman Mao, who’s portrayed not just a
revolutionary, but also as a romantic. He’s played by a young Chinese
heartthrob. And while that might lure in female audiences, the real message
isn’t about love, but politics.
The film is a pean to the Communist Party, released to honor the 90th
anniversary of its founding. It describes the party’s influence as having led
China down a glorious path of ethnic independence, liberation, national wealth
and strength. No mention of the Great Leap Forward, the famine, the Cultural
Revolution, or, of course, Tiananmen Square.
The Chinese Communist Party has made sure that this movie will be seen by its
people. It’s released Beginning of the Great Revival in more than 6,000 theaters
accompanied with massive publicity.
By some reports the government expects it to make well over $130 million,
twice as much as its last propaganda flick, The Founding of the Republic.
And it has also gotten major Chinese corporations to rent out theaters and give
employees tickets. Watching the film is mandatory for school children and so
So what do people think of the movie? Well, the ratings on Chinese websites
have mysteriously been disabled, but if IMDB.com is any indicator, the
film scored a two out of 10 rating which is pretty darn poor.
China’s control over its movie industry actually raises much larger issues.
Studio heads in Los Angeles salivate over the thought of China’s 1.3 billion
citizens turning into a Hollywood film buffs. There is already great interest in
going to the movies in China. China is said to be building two new movie
theaters everyday. But the Chinese government is not allowing market forces to
determine who watches what movies.
You see, even when there’s no blackout or moratorium, China allows only a
limited number of foreign films in its theaters every year – about 20 – and even
those are subject to strict censorship. And when the films are allowed in,
foreign film studios are still stiffed. They reportedly get only 20% of Chinese
ticket revenues, much less than they get anywhere else in the world. And, of
course, there is massive piracy of DVDs, which the Chinese government does
little to prevent.
China’s attitude towards foreign movies is troubling because it points in two
First, Beijing appears to be adopting a policy that favors local companies
over international ones even if it deprives the Chinese consumer of choice,
variety and quality. Businessmen from around the world in various industries
have been complaining about such practices, many of which are potentially
violations of free trade and of China’s treaty obligations.
Second, Beijing seems to be turning in a nationalist direction – consciously
promoting propaganda, keeping out foreign influences, all to create greater
solidarity at home and legitimacy for the Communist Party. These are worrying
tendencies which would cause friction between China and the world, and they are
reversal of China’s outward orientation over the last three decades – an
orientation that has powered China’s rise to wealth and prosperity.
But there is some good news. I like one strategy China is employing to
promote its own movies.
You’ve probably heard of Kung Fu
Panda. Well, the sequel to that film is out around the world, as every
parent knows, and is doing especially well in China.
Beijing is hoping to counter Hollywood’s success with the release this month
of its own animated action flick. Legend
of a Rabbit, the film is about a kung fu bunny, who takes on a big mean bad
enemy. The enemy is a panda. Now, that’s a fair fight, and may the best animal