Famous wrestler and star of “The Fast and the Furious”, American actor John Cena thought it would be a good idea to promote the franchise’s ninth film in Taiwan by speaking in Mandarin. Interviewed by a local television station, Cena got into a mess with political ramifications: he luckily announced that the island – considered a rebel province by the Beijing government – would be the “first country” to see the production.
The reaction online was immediate, prompting Cena to apologize in Mandarin to his 600,000+ followers on Weibo (a kind of Chinese Twitter) and triggering a major academic discussion about Chinese assertiveness and self-censorship in Western countries.
Located 180 kilometers off the coast of China, the Taiwan archipelago has been inhabited by the Han Chinese since the 13th century and was once dominated by the Dutch, Spanish and Japanese. With the end of World War II and the surrender of Tokyo, the territory briefly returned to mainland Chinese control in 1945, something that would be short-lived: with the end of the Chinese Civil War four years later, the archipelago becomes the refuge of the nationalists of the Kuomintang Party who tried to escape the Chinese Communist Party, which took control of the continent.
Initially ruled by a dictatorship that claimed dominance over the whole of Chinese territory, the archipelago lost its political relevance when it was replaced by communist China on the UN Security Council in 1971, a decision of former US President Richard Nixon to get closer to Mao Tse-tung. .
Without international political power, the province adopted democratic rule in the early 1990s and now has a considerable part of the population that wants independence. By calling Taiwan a country, the Cena indirectly recognized the sovereignty of the government in Taipei over the territory, stepping on a historic callousness of Communist China which has sought to reunite since its founding.
For Melissa Conley Tyler, a researcher at the Asian Institute at the University of Melbourne, the online reaction is part of Beijing’s broad strategy to deter Taiwan from declaring independence and to pressure the government to negotiate. the return of the territory.
Visiting researcher at Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry Conley Tyler says he thinks tensions have become more evident recently with the rise of the Taiwanese Progressive Democratic Party to a more independent executive.
“China has been patient and has used political means to promote reunification, with the deadline of 2049 when the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist People’s Republic will be celebrated. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has addressed the issue more often, however, arguing that the problem cannot be passed down from generation to generation. He may want to be the leader to take credit for Taiwan’s return, ”says Conley Tyler.
Citing recent opinion polls conducted in the archipelago, the researcher claims that Taiwan has come to develop “its own identity as a distinct place” from mainland China and that Beijing will have to overcome a popular barrier if it wants to discuss reunification in peaceful terms: “The majority prefers independence, two-thirds supporting it if Taiwan can maintain peaceful relations with China, and nearly half defending separation, even if this would lead China to attack,” explains he does.
Former US President Donald Trump’s antagonism to mainland China has also heightened tensions in the region. When elected in 2016, Trump became the first president to accept a call from the Taiwanese presidency congratulating him on his victory. The phone call turned on the yellow light among Communist leaders, who have come to doubt the United States’ commitment to the “one-China policy,” an ambiguous principle in which the United States recognizes the existence of a single China, avoiding separatist debates, but not compromising on which of the two Chinas would be the “real” one.
“With Trump, the United States has become more active in supporting Taiwan in terms of arms sales, thus improving contacts with the authorities. Under Biden, there has been an effort to attract partners and allies to show their support. [ao arquipélago]”said Conley Tyler, citing bilateral talks between the Democratic President and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in which the issue was mentioned as a cause of regional concern.
self-censorship in focus
The apologies of the American actor seem to have paid off: the new film in the franchise “Fast and the Furious” has not disappeared from the programming in mainland China. The video in which Cena admits (in Mandarin) to having made a “mistake” and reaffirms his “love and respect for China and the Chinese people” has been a hit on social media and seems to have calmed the minds of spectators and spectators alike. censorship officials in Beijing.
However, halfway around the world, the video received a deluge of criticism outside of China. In Australia, a television station called the apology “frightening and pathetic”, while US portal The Hill called the initiative “disgusting reverence for China.” On Twitter, thousands of Internet users have commented on the rise of self-censorship among Western people and businesses to please Beijing and protect businesses in China.
For the research director of the Observa China network and doctoral student in international relations at the University of Brasilia (UnB), Paulo Menechelli, the question is increasingly present.
The professor, who studies Chinese soft power in cinema, says the dramatic rise in blockbuster movies has made Hollywood increasingly dependent on big box office sales. Due to the pandemic, the country overtook the United States in 2020 and became the largest and most profitable film market in the world, also leading the ranking of countries with the highest number of theaters. There are currently 77,769, of which 2,000 were built between January and February this year alone (for comparison, the United States had 44,111 rooms at the end of 2020).
“The model forces studios to chase profits at all costs, yielding to interference from Chinese censors. Some productions even change the script, creating a specific version for the Chinese, ”comments Menechelli, as in“ Iron Man 3 ”, in which the hero Tony Stark is treated by acupuncturists in the copy distributed in China, instead of doctors. traditional Western.
The researcher explains that this strategy is not new – after all, it is the attempt to bring ex-president Franklin Roosevelt closer to Brazil that gave birth to the charismatic Disney parrot Zé Carioca -, and generates an interesting geopolitical dynamic: Unlike the Cold War, when Soviet characters were often portrayed as villains, America’s dependence on the Chinese box office knocked China’s antagonists off the screen.
More: in “Lost on Mars”, the Chinese build the spacecraft to search for the American astronaut. In the new version of “Violent Dawn,” China would invade the United States, and the studio digitally altered the film to move it to North Korea.
“Last year, the US Congress attempted to pass a law prohibiting studios from accessing public funds if they make concessions to China. Everyone laughed because US state funding for cinema is insignificant compared to Chinese cinema revenues. It is therefore likely that this debate provoked by the video of John Cena will become more and more frequent ”, predicts Menechelli.