Hollywood celebrities have long expressed their disdain for Chinese foreign policy—specifically China’s stance on Tibet. “We have to be patient and we have to keep Tibetan culture alive…because the Chinese are doing their best to completely eradicate it,” Richard Gere has argued. He is joined by Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, and an array of other “Free Tibet” actors-turned-activists.
But the “Free Tibet” crowd has a much bigger fish to fry: China’s takeover of American cinema. That’s right: The Chinese government—namely the Communist Party—is buying up U.S. film studios and movie theater chains near and dear to American hearts.
In 2012, the Chinese firm Dalian Wanda bought AMC Entertainment—the second largest movie theater chain in the country—for about $2.6 billion. Then, in January 2016, the company purchased Legendary Entertainment—the film studio behind the “Dark Knight” trilogy—for an even heftier $3.5 billion. And in March 2016, Dalian Wanda agreed to acquire Carmike Cinemas for roughly $737 million, which would form the country’s largest chain with more than 600 theaters (the deal is expected to close in late 2016).
So why is this a big deal? Isn’t Dalian Wanda just a private company with a lot of money?
Not quite. The firm’s founder and chairman, Wang Jianlin, has strong ties to China’s Communist Party. Wang served in the People’s Liberation Army between 1970 and 1986, at which time he was appointed Office Director of the Xigang District Government in Dalian, China. Wang also served as a deputy to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party. CCTV, China’s state-run television network, has acknowledged Wang's communist sympathies by twice naming him its “Economic Person of the Year.”
The firm doesn’t fall far from its founder. Dalian Wanda has sold stakes in the company to various family members of elected officials. This includes the elder sister of President Xi Jinping and relatives of two members of the Politburo—China’s principal policymaking committee—who provided seed money to the company.
So when Dalian Wanda describes its cinema acquisitions as “cross-border cultural acquisition[s],” it’s more than just business as usual. The company’s recent activities are part of a broader effort to influence American cinema and, by extension, U.S. public opinion. Since at least 2007, the Communist Party has pledged to maximize its “soft power,” now devoting roughly $10 billion a year to “external propaganda” to expand its global influence.
As political scientist Joseph Nye—who coined the phrase “soft power”—wrote last year:
“China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence other countries without force or coercion.”
The United States is no exception. It’s time for Hollywood to read the tea leaves.