The Use of Film for Public Diplomacy: Why Hollywood Makes a Stronger Case for China

With the establishment of its first academic research center on public diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University and a well-publicized International Forum on Public Diplomacy in 2010, China has been taking some major steps forward as it tries to, in Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying’s words, “effectively present its image to other countries” and overcome a lack of experience “in handling relations with the media and the public in foreign countries”.  The specific emphasis on public diplomacy is part of a wider initiative to enhance China’s “soft power,” with tens of billions of dollars in state funding including: the development of media and entertainment companies to compete with global giants such as News Corporation and Time Warner ; the erection, one day before the arrival of Hu Jintao on a four day state visit to the United States, of a prominent 50-meter display in New York’s Times Square called “China Experience,” which offered a looped one-minute promotional video featuring some of the nation’s most prominent faces ; the relocation of the North American headquarters of the official Xinhua news agency from a small building in Queens to a sprawling office complex in Times Square ; the expansion from 10 to 50 bureaus of CCTV-9, a 24-hour satellite English news channel established as early as 2000 ; and the placement of multi-page advertisements by China Daily in the form of news stories from China in the front sections of such key newspapers as The New York Times1 .  This is all in addition to China’s well-publicized Confucius Institutes established throughout the world.  China’s film industry is also expected to play its role in this effort, with the official China Film Promotion International, established under the China Film Group in April 2004, taking the lead. 

There are, however, compelling reasons to suggest, ironically, that Hollywood blockbuster films have in fact been far more effective in promoting China’s public diplomacy initiatives than China’s own films.  The reasons for this seemingly strange phenomenon are actually quite simple.  On the one hand, with the rapid development of the film market in China and other developing regions Hollywood can no longer rely on the North American market to turn a profit for “big” films that have enormous production and marketing budgets; indeed, as much as 70 percent of the box office for such films now comes from outside North America and, for certain films, increasingly from China.  As a result, it is becoming more common for Hollywood studios to open its films outside the United States. 

On the other hand, unlike Hollywood, the state’s top priority for Chinese films remains political, that is the socialization of the young to understand and acknowledge the role of the state and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in promoting the interests of the country, both domestically and internationally.  Generating such support for the government should then, ideally, promote social stability.  Hollywood films, in the form of theatrical releases and through widely available pirated DVDs, are used in part to promote such stability by giving the people what they want, albeit not unconditionally.  At politically significant times of the year – for example before and after national day on October 1, around the anniversary of major political milestones such as the founding of the CCP on July 1, during the convening of major CCP meetings such as Party Congresses – Hollywood films, along with Chinese blockbusters of a commercial nature, are removed from theaters to ensure a strong box office for “propaganda” films.  This generally includes the distribution of free tickets through schools and work units and pressure on theater managers to promote these films. 

An examination of the top ten box office hits of all time in China reveals that six are Hollywood blockbusters, with “Avatar” making more than twice as much as any film has ever made in China, bringing in over $200 million USD.  “Kung Fu Panda 2,” at number 4 on the list (around 72 million and still in theatrical release at the time of this writing) and “2012” (around 71 million) at number 6 join “Inception,” “Transformers 2,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean 4” (also still in release) among the top ten.  At least two conclusions are of interest in terms of public diplomacy and Hollywood’s strategy.  First, every film among the top ten was released in the last few years, with two of the films from 2011, five from 2010, and three from 2009, an indication of the rapidly expanding box office as the Chinese middle class has more income to devote to entertainment.  Second, and related to the first point, Hollywood has been careful to ensure that its films are China-friendly, and has learned from experience that deviations from a China-friendly strategy are punished, either by the Chinese public at the box office or by film authorities by outright bans.

Kung Fu Panda 2” and “2012” are prime examples of Hollywood’s successful strategy to work with China and present a positive image of the country.  While the first “Kung Fu Panda” (2008) was reasonably successful in China, with a box office of $28 million USD at the current exchange rate, it ranks only number 36 all-time at the Chinese box office and generated some negative publicity from those who felt that usurping core icons of China such as pandas and martial arts, particularly so soon after the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008, was a form of “cultural imperialism”.  Before filming “Kung Fu Panda 2,” DreamWorks accepted an offer from Sichuan provincial officials to send a team to the province to see the real home of the pandas and, as production designer Raymond Zibach noted, the visit to China was “inspirational,” and “it became the basis of a lot of what you see” in the sequel.2  For officials in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, “’Kung Fu Panda 2’ has helped to put Chengdu onto the global stage” and is expected to boost tourism to the area significantly.  As the story in the Straits Times noted, “more Chinese cities are now looking for similar tie-ups, drawn by the allure of riding on Hollywood movies, the ultimate soft power vehicle”.3  Moreover, in a striking contrast to those who criticized “Kung Fu Panda 2” for the same sins of cultural imperialism as its predecessor , film critic Yu Deqing wrote: “Hollywood’s participation in promoting Chinese culture and soft power should be supported.  Let’s have more!”4

2012” was even more proactive in placating China and appealing to Chinese audiences.  For example, in the face of the natural disasters that are destroying North America, the film makes explicit that only China is capable of building the arks necessary to save the planet, with the positive role of the People’s Liberation Army, often depicted in the Western press as more nationalistic in expanding China’s influence than a cautious civilian government, particularly highlighted in the film.  One Chinese blog, for example, in listing “the top Hollywood films that intentionally suck up to China,” had “2012” at the top of the list. The reward for the Hollywood studio, as noted above, came at the Chinese box office. 

Such concern for Chinese sensibilities – and the Chinese box office – has now become the norm.  In the most recent instance, the MGM remake of “Red Dawn,” the 1984 Cold War drama about a Soviet invasion of a small Western town, the completed film made the invaders Chinese.  After potential distributors expressed concern that this would limit their access to an important market, and Chinese websites posted pictures from the set of actors posing as Chinese troops, the decision was made to digitally erase Chinese flags and military symbols, and alter the dialogue to depict most of the invaders as North Koreans.  As MGM struggles to recover from bankruptcy and find a distributor for “Red Dawn,” and as they develop the next James Bond sequel and “The Hobbit” – both of which would be expected to do well in China if released – such digital legerdemain, costing less than $1 million USD was seen as a wise business decision. MGM no doubt remembers when the studio was banned from distributing films in China in 1997 after the release of “Red Corner,” one of three Hollywood films that year that were considered offensive to China; Columbia/Tristar and Touchstone/Disney also endured bans at the time for “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun”.

By contrast, those Hollywood films that have been less successful than expected in China, including the recent “Karate Kid” (2010) and “Mission Impossible 3” (2006), have foundered in large part because they did not devote appropriate attention to the image of China and the Chinese they were presenting.  “Karate Kid,” the Sino-American co-production starring Chinese icon Jackie Chan and action hero Will Smith’s son, was expected to do very well in China.  However, while it brought in over $176 million USD at the American box office and over $183 million USD at the foreign box office, only $7 million of that total came from China, an outcome totally unexpected by the American producers.  Indeed, “Karate Kid” was in many ways a highly successful co-production, accounting for 67.2 percent of the total revenue of Chinese films marketed abroad that year.  Of the other 479 films produced in China in 2010, not a single one made any money overseas.  Those familiar with the Chinese market were not surprised at its poor performance at home.  As one Beijing-based consultant noted, “The Chinese kid got beat up by the foreign kid…. You think Chinese people want to see that?”  Yu Dong, CEO of the NASDAQ listed Bona Film Group went even further, suggesting that, “If the director had made the American kid beat a Japanese kid in The Karate Kid, maybe Chinese audiences would like to see it.” 

Mission Impossible 3” did somewhat better in China, bringing in just over $10 million USD at the Chinese box office; however, that represented only about 3.8 percent of the total overseas box office.  In this case the film was delayed and almost banned because it showed Shanghai in an unflattering light, depicting the Shanghai police as quite incompetent in catching criminals, having foreign criminal elements fighting publicly in Shanghai, showing raggedy clothes hanging from roofs and bamboo sticks, having chemical weapons stored by the villains in Shanghai and the village of Xitang, and so forth.  All these points were raised in Chinese commentaries about the film.  By the time the film was allowed to be screened, with some cuts, it had been widely viewed on pirated DVDs by much of its targeted audience. 

If Hollywood now (mostly) “gets it” and has learned valuable lessons in understanding the relationship between China’s image on screen and the Chinese box office, as suggested above, China has multiple priorities for its film industry, often using non-market, administrative means for ensuring domestic box office performance for favored films which are produced for political reasons.  For film bureaucrats the ideal film is what can be called a “patriotic commercial blockbuster,” represented most recently by “The Founding of a Republic” (2009) and “Beginning of the Great Revival” (2011), with the former celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the latter celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.  Needless to say, such films do little to promote Chinese soft power abroad.  “Revival” opened in selected American theaters on June 24, 2011, and offers some valuable lessons on why Hollywood films have been more effective than China’s own films in promoting China’s public diplomacy efforts. 


First, such political films are produced and marketed with a Chinese audience in mind, primarily domestic but also overseas.  Subtitled films don’t travel well; taking the U.S. as an example, the biggest Chinese language “hits” of the last few years were John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” released here in a severely truncated version that brought in $627,000 in 2009, and Donnie Yen’s “Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster,” which opened on January 28, 2011 and brought in a meager $205,000.  Taking a longer view, those Chinese films that have done best overseas with Western as well as Chinese (and other Asian) audiences have been historical epics set during the dynastic period, often with a strong martial arts component.  “Revival” is being marketed to Chinese communities, primarily in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Hawaii, as part of an arrangement of China Lion Distribution Inc. and AMC theaters.

Second, “Revival” has begun to generate some Western press coverage, which is an important component in promoting a nation’s public diplomacy.  Significantly, however, the Western – and even much of the Asian – press coverage has focused on areas which are counterproductive to public diplomacy efforts.  For example, it has been noted that to ensure a strong box office, tickets are being distributed gratis to the masses, and that the film is often derided if it registers with the public at all. In addition, popular movie review websites in China have disabled the star rating system for the film, and have not allowed users to leave written reviews, with one report suggesting that before the rating system was disabled the film had garnered overwhelmingly negative reviews, with 87.8 percent of raters giving it the minimum one star. Many reports note that to ensure success, screenings of new Hollywood films such as “Transformers 3” and “Cars 2” will be delayed, that this is one of close to 30 propaganda films being released at this time, and that this is part of the party’s coordinated effort that includes TV soap operas, books, and musical events.  As with “Founding of a Republic,” it appears that most of those who are enthusiastic about seeing the film are attracted by the star power of the cast: many of the leading actors in the mainland and Hong Kong film industries appear in these films, with the entertainment value consisting of recognizing which star is portraying which historical character.

Such Western coverage of Chinese films is not atypical; there is probably a greater interest in political issues than artistic ones in reporting on Chinese film.  Thus, at a recent cultural forum in Shanghai, award-winning “Sixth Generation” director Jia Zhangke made headlines when he openly attacked film censorship, citing it as the reason that China cannot make genre films, expressing his frustration that his proposed films on a man’s sex life and a spy film about the Communist and Nationalist parties had to be scrapped. As he put it, “If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes,” further adding that “This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety.”  It is therefore perhaps not surprising that China is playing up the opening of a Chinese film festival in Myanmar (Burma) from June 11-17 this year, and its cooperation with Myanmar in film; in military-controlled Myanmar there should be no debate about censorship.

Given the self-imposed restrictions on China’s film industry, the image of China shaped by films comes primarily from two sources, one positive and one negative. As noted above, Hollywood blockbusters have a financial interest in making China look good.  However, some independent films in English with a Chinese theme have done surprisingly well at the box office, and presented a far less attractive picture of China.  For example, the Australian film “Mao’s Last Dancer” (2010), based on the autobiography of a Chinese ballet dancer who defected to the U.S. in the early 1980’s, presents Chinese consulate officials in Houston doing everything possible, including kidnapping, to prevent the dancer from remaining in the U.S. with his American wife.  In contrast to the poor performance of Chinese films abroad, “Dancer” brought in close to $5 million USD in the U.S. and over $22 million USD worldwide.  So long as the Chinese film industry is subject to the same political constraints as other Chinese media, China’s public diplomacy in this arena will continue to be shaped by others. 


  1. “China Watch”, The New York Times,May 27, 20112
  2. Grace Ng, “Power of Kungfu Panda 2: Chengdu Scores Publicity Coup as Setting for Hit Film,” The Straits Times
  3. ibid
  4. ibid

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