When Star Wars: The Last Jedi underperformed in China, some fans called this an unexpected boon for LGBTQ representation. If China was less important to the Star Wars universe’s collective gross, the theory went, then Chinese censors wouldn’t hold as much sway over studio decisions. And without China holding Star Wars back, we would finally get the LGBTQ representation we’ve been clamoring for. But there are several problems with this logic, starting with xenophobia and ending with Hollywood’s own history of bigotry and bias.
The idea goes like this: Because Chinese movie-goers are buying more tickets than ever before, they have increasing sway over the global success or failure of American blockbuster films. Being able to screen your film in China requires passing the eyes of Chinese censors, who consider several factors in how they rate domestic and imported cultural products: cultural protection, historical “accuracy,” political appropriateness, and finally, moral grounds.
Films that portray the Chinese military as either weak or oppressive commonly face censorship, and depictions of the country as poor or unsophisticated likewise don’t pass muster. Some of the top foreign targets for censorship are children’s books, cartoons and games, and the reason for that is obvious: Children’s media is a huge part of how people everywhere shape the views and lives of their children. And in China, the central government doesn’t want that left to foreign media or even “reactionary” domestic creators.
Hollywood blockbusters, including sci-fi-fantasy epics, action spectacles, and superhero films, have also been targets of Chinese censorship. The 2012 remake of Crimson Dawn was going to feature Chinese soldiers invading a US town, until a meeting with Chinese officials made it clear that the film would never make it to the Chinese market unless that was changed. The script was adjusted so that it was instead DPRK soldiers landing on US soil.
The cost of one blockbuster not making it to Chinese theaters wouldn’t be fatal for any Hollywood studio, but the cost of souring their long term relationship with officials and hurting future releases is certainly daunting. That’s why more and more studios are making changes to their films with Chinese censors in mind.