Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The China Syndrome

Robert Rath | 11 Oct 2012 16:00
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The American Legion Hall was decked out as a prison camp for the Red Dawn premiere party at genre film festival Fantastic Fest. Spotlights beamed from guard towers, propaganda papered the walls, and a chain link fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the yard. The girls serving drinks were dressed in military uniforms of dubious accuracy, while above them, the North Korean colors waved from the flagpole.

Originally, that flag was supposed to be Chinese. By changing the antagonist to North Korea, Red Dawn joined an increasing number of films and games that have altered their content in order to comply with Chinese censorship boards, and even - unintentionally -played into North Korea's diplomatic strategy.

When Red Dawn wrapped filming in 2009 and MGM started seeking distribution deals, they encountered a problem: Distributors turned them away en masse, saying that the film was toxic and would poison their relationship with Beijing. Recently, studios have discovered that China's exploding film market, which was worth $1.28 billion last year, can boost a film's worldwide box office to new levels of profitability. But in order to access China's IMAX and 3D-hungry public, distributors have to deal with the country's censorship boards, which are known to punish companies for material that criticizes the government. MGM, for instance, learned this lesson in the 1990s, when China broke off business dealings with them for years over the film Red Corner, a drama about human rights abuses in the PRC's legal system. In desperation - and not wanting to endanger foreign releases for their upcoming films Skyfall and The Hobbit - MGM spent a million dollars to reshoot the opening scene and digitally change all the Chinese iconography to North Korean.

North Korea's box office receipts are zero.

This trend toward self-censorship isn't limited to Hollywood. Game companies also have a long and problematic history with approving games for the Chinese market. The most striking parallel to the recent Red Dawn incident is the case of Homefront, a military FPS from 2011. Like Red Dawn, Homefront told the story of a band of American resistance fighters striking back after a North Korean invasion of the United States, and like Red Dawn, Homefront originally featured China's People's Liberation Army as its antagonists. However, while Red Dawn tried to swap its baddies retroactively, the Homefront team recognized the risk early and changed its story before anyone raised a fuss. Executive Danny Bilson summed up the situation in an interview with Kotaku, saying: "The guys in our Chinese office said: Did you know that everybody on the exec team will be banned from coming into China for the rest of your lives? They were afraid the ministry of culture was going to wipe us out." Judging by early concept art, something similar happened during the development of Crysis.

The Homefront team were right to worry about the Ministry of Culture, which is the government department that reviews audiovisual media and either approves or blocks its release. In 2000, after a moral panic about young people "wasting their minds" on games, the Ministry of Culture banned all game consoles except plug'n'plays and handhelds, though foreign consoles are simple to acquire on the infamous - and extremely blatant - grey market. Under the Ministry's purview, games can be banned for violating a highly extensive 10 item list that ranges from Item #7, "Those that propagate obscenity, gambling, violence or instigate crime," to Item #5, "Those that propagate cults or superstition."

Games that reflect badly on the government especially invoke the Ministry's wrath. Project IGI2: Covert Strike, which followed a mercenary fighting a rogue Chinese general, was banned for "intentionally blackening China and the Chinese Army's image," (that would fall under Item # 3: "Those that... damage the honor or benefits of the State"). Command and Conquer: Generals got the ax for a whole host of reasons, from a campaign that featured a nuclear strike on Tiananmen Square, to the PRC faction's liberal use of nukes and propaganda, to a mission where the PRC player has to destroy the Three Gorges Dam in order to drown the opposing army. The last example was especially unfortunate, since the Three Gorges Dam has been extremely controversial both within and without China. According to the government, the dam is a technical marvel and represents the pinnacle of Chinese achievement. Human rights groups and environmental activists, on the other hand, point to the deep ecological impact of the dam's construction, as well as the 1.3 million Chinese citizens displaced by its massive reservoir.

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