There is substance to these rumours, as Iger has political ambitions, and was even thinking about a run for president in the 2020 election. In February, he marked the beginning of the end of his 25-year run at Disney, stepping down as CEO and becoming executive chairman, thus creating room to explore new options.
It might be a good time to jump ship. Disney’s latest accounts show they have lost billions in revenue due to the widespread closure of cinemas and a very limited ability to open their theme parks, so the company’s future is not looking as rosy as it did 12 months ago.
Iger is not the only Tinseltown bigwig being rewarded for Hollywood’s broad support for Biden during the election campaign, as Susan Rice has already stepped down from the board of Netflix to run the Biden White House’s Domestic Policy Council.
Similarly, Dreamworks executive and Quibi mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, a major Democratic donor, is also being considered for an ambassador’s role, while Matt Walden, husband of Walt Disney Television chairman Dana Walden, is also in the frame. Walden has a decades-long friendship with Kamala Harris’ husband Douglas Emhoff.
Iger accused of being Chinese propagandist
This cooperative nexus between the Democrat Party establishment and the entertainment business has led to predictable criticism from their political opponents. Fox News host Tucker Carlson responded to the news about Iger’s potential ambassadorial role by decrying the former CEO as a “Chinese propagandist,” saying, “Few people have made more money from their connections to the Chinese government than Bob Iger, and fewer still are as openly grateful for it.”
It is certainly true that Disney has repeatedly tailored their projects to the Chinese market and been willing to make changes and cuts to appease the government’s censors. On ‘Iron Man 3’, censorship board officials were invited to the set to monitor some of the filming. The Chinese cut of ‘Iron Man 3’ includes product placement for popular Chinese brands and the Mandarin was transliterated in the film to ‘Man Daren’ to remove any Chinese association from the villain.
Similarly, on ‘Doctor Strange’ the producers changed the character of the Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a Caucasian woman, casting Tilda Swinton in the role, in part to avoid any potential arguments with the Chinese government. Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill explained, “He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.”
The noisy commentary about Chinese influence on Hollywood reached fever pitch earlier this year, following the release of Disney’s live action version of ‘Mulan’. Parts of the film were shot in China’s Xinjiang province, with help from the local government, leading to Disney taking fire for participating with a government accused of mistreating and oppressing the region’s Uighur Muslim population. #BoycottMulan trended after viewers began noticing, “a ‘special thanks’ in the film’s end credits to eight government entities in Xinjiang, including the public security bureau in the city of Turpan, where China is believed to operate over a dozen ‘re-education camps’ that hold Uighurs in extra-judicial detention.”
Propaganda’s double standards
Curiously, none of the activists or commentators objecting to ‘Mulan’ drew the obvious comparison with films supported by the military or security apparatus of the US, or other countries. For example, the Pentagon-supported franchise ‘Transformers’, which is very popular in China, features the island of Diego Garcia as the headquarters for the joint military-Transformers strike force.
The ‘Transformers’ films make no mention of the real history of Diego Garcia and how the British authorities forced the indigenous Chagossians off the island so they could lease it to the Pentagon, including killing the islanders’ pets.
Likewise, the Pentagon-supported alien invasion movie ‘Battleship’ was set in and around Hawaii, and much of the filming took place during the US Navy’s annual RIMPAC exercise. The film says nothing about how Hawaii was an independent kingdom until the US government backed a coup in the 1890s against the Hawaiian monarchy, and then annexed the country a few years later.
If Disney deserves criticism for the wilful ignorance of the oppression of Uighurs in ‘Mulan’, then Paramount, Dreamworks, and Universal should face equal criticism for ‘Transformers’ and ‘Battleship’ doing the same thing. Instead, there is a distinct double standard at play, whereby studios cowing to the demands of Chinese government censors or catering to the Chinese market face hostility. However, when they do the same, or worse, in advancing the US government’s agendas, covering up for their crimes or placating the US domestic market, we get the eerie sound of silence.
The State Department, China and Hollywood
If Iger is appointed as Biden’s ambassador to China, it would further strengthen the bond between the State Department and Hollywood, especially where China is concerned. China has long resisted the cultural hegemony of the US, and for decades very few Hollywood films were even allowed into the country. In the 1990s, this policy softened, and ‘The Fugitive’ became the first US blockbuster to be shown in China in years.
Since then, the relationship has been tempestuous. In 1997, the Chinese government found three films so offensive that it didn’t just ban the films, it banned the studios behind them. This led to Disney hiring geopolitical A-lister and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to smooth things over in Beijing and allow them to distribute their films in China once more.
In 2007, the US brought a World Trade Organisation case against China for its ongoing heavy restrictions on the import and distribution of American-made films. At that time, only 20 US films were allowed to be exhibited in China. The WTO found in favour of the US and gave China until 2011 to comply with ‘free trade’ laws.
The Chinese government didn’t comply, so in 2012 the US and China negotiated a deal to stave off further action from the WTO. As recorded in a State Department memorandum, the new deal expanded the quota of US imports from 20 to 34. What the memo doesn’t say is that the deal was struck by the two countries’ then-vice presidents, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, now the president and president-elect of China and the US.
The bilateral agreement expired in February 2017, but in a climate of mutual suspicion, a replacement has not yet been negotiated. So, if Iger does get the big job, then it could also aid in a thawing of relations in the new cultural Cold War. This would increase Hollywood’s ability to access the Chinese market, thus propagating the desired messages of the US government, but likely also increasing the influence of Chinese corporations and the Chinese government on Hollywood’s output.
While this is good news for Hollywood and the Chinese and American governments, it is bad news for audiences. It also suggests that the Biden administration is looking to repair relations with China so it can shift focus back to Russia as the perceived primary external threat facing the US. So we should expect Hollywood to continue deploying stereotyped Russian spies and billionaires in everything from disaster movies to family comedies, while politely avoiding the authoritarian nature of Chinese society.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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