Adrienne Wu is a research assistant at Global Taiwan Institute and has a dual M.A. from Ritsumeikan University and Kyunghee University.
In the wake of increasingly strict content restrictions from Beijing, government-backed Taiwanese agencies such as the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA, 文化內容策進院) have increasingly sought to market Taiwan as a more open alternative for production companies who want to make more progressive content. Moneyboys, an Austrian-Taiwanese film about a gay sex worker that was later presented at the Cannes Film Festival, is an example of one such successful collaboration. Although the film’s Chinese-Austrian director C.B. Yi had originally intended to shoot a documentary about gay sex workers in China, he eventually chose Taiwan as his filming location instead, also opting to make his documentary into a feature film. In some regards, Beijing’s hardline attitude toward censorship could benefit Taiwan, as it provides a stark contrast to Taiwan’s role as a progressive East Asian country that cares about protecting creators’ freedom of speech, while also opening the door to new international partnerships.
Soft Power in East Asia
Ever since Joseph S. Nye coined the term “soft power,” governments have chosen to interpret the concept in various ways. After the United Kingdom advocated for the economic viability of “creative industries” and their potential for improving perceptions of the UK abroad, other governments—including in Taipei—followed Britain’s example. To coordinate the promotion of creative industries, South Korea established the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) in 2009 and Taipei created the government-backed TAICCA in 2019. Both agencies attempt to nourish creative industries by supplying financial and educational support for creators, while also providing a gateway to overseas expansion through content pavilions and events. In contrast, Beijing’s approach towards creative industries has been more interventionist and in some aspects can be characterized as “sharp power.” China uses censorship to prevent its culture from becoming “polluted” domestically, before it then broadcasts these domestic depictions to a greater global audience. While both Taiwan and China are striving for the same result—the ability to promote their countries to a foreign audience—the approach is fundamentally different. Through TAICCA, Taipei aims to create “free and open” Taiwanese content that “delve[s] into a variety of social issues,” while Beijing’s main objective is to produce state-approved propaganda that can be distributed both domestically and internationally.
Beijing Control, Globalized
Two important facets of Beijing’s approach to soft power inform its approach to globally produced media: 1) domestic perception of the content is the principal concern; and 2) the content made for domestic Chinese audiences should also be disseminated to international audiences. The overwhelming size of China’s consumer market means that Chinese companies have no incentive to cater to international markets, while international companies face intense pressure to conform to Beijing’s state-directed norms. The practice of creating region-specific versions of content is standard, but the expectation that a region-specific version must also be distributed to a global audience is unique to Beijing.
Emblematic of this phenomenon is Paramount’s controversial choice to remove references to Taiwan from the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick due to financing from Chinese entertainment giant Tencent. Reflecting on the decision, former President of DMG Entertainment Chris Fenton related: “So Paramount, the filmmaker of that movie, said ‘Fine, we will cut that out or blur [the Taiwanese flag] out for the China market.’ But China said, ‘No, no, no, it’s not just for the China market, we do not want that seen anywhere in the world.’” In the end, Paramount gave up on a Chinese release and aired the movie with the original Taiwan (Republic of China) flag intact, not due to backlash from moviegoers, but due to Tencent’s own decision to withdraw funding because of fears that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would not be happy with the movie’s pro-American content.
Reducing Taiwan’s Creative Space
Beijing’s interest in controlling the global narrative of China has also led them to encroach upon other countries’ cultural narratives. In a 2022 Stanford study, over half of South Korean respondents who held anti-Chinese sentiments said Beijing’s “cultural imperialism” of claiming cultural Korean symbols such as hanbok and kimchi as Chinese contributed to their negative feelings. Due to the CCP’s sensitivity regarding Taiwan, the topic of Taiwan is “commonly understood to be untouchable” in Hollywood movies. As a result, Taiwanese references are removed from movies during production; such as the aforementioned Top Gun: Maverick controversy. Although the public has not yet uncovered proof of any Taiwanese characters intentionally being rewritten, the fact that Doctor Strange’s Ancient One was transformed from a Tibetan (one of China’s forbidden “three Ts,” along with Taiwan and Tiananmen) to an individual of Celtic descent shows that it would not be outside the realm of possibility.
Erich Schwartzel, the author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, agreed in a talk given at the East West Center that there are few examples of Hollywood censoring Taiwan-related content, because mentions of Taiwan are often already self-censored by writers and studio executives during the production phase. As PEN America noted in their report on Beijing’s influence on Hollywood, “censorship is most notable not for its presence, but for the absence it creates: the absence of films, stories, characters, and plotlines that would have existed—or existed in a different form—were it not for the power of the censor.” If Beijing’s erasure of Taiwan becomes accepted as standard practice, then it reduces chances for Taiwanese representation—as both a nation and as a people—in creative content.
Moreover, pressure from Beijing has the potential to make enduring changes to the industry through normalized self-censorship. PEN America detailed how the CCP’s lack of clear censorship guidelines, accompanied by the high risk of financial losses for production companies, has resulted in creators liberally self-censoring their work in anticipation of Beijing’s demands. Examples of this have not only been seen in Hollywood, but also in other creative fields looking to access the Chinese market, such as the gaming industry. Chinese-language video game developers based in Taiwan and Hong Kong often end up appealing to the Chinese market due to language barriers with English-speaking publishers. Yet, this access also comes at a cost: video game developers from Taiwan have stated that “We have to recognize Taiwan as a province of China or at least be quiet.” Taiwanese creators not only have to censor their work, but also the presentation of their own identity.
Additionally, many video game developers have come to view self-censorship as part of the production process. One Hong Kong-based video game developer, Johnson Siau, said that video game developers either need to be “pragmatic” and find ways to develop their games to avoid running afoul of censorship, or else they simply have to find a new market for their games. Another Taiwanese video game developer similarly stated, “If we are considering making a game [for the Chinese] market, either we self-censor the story or remove the story, or we will try to edit it for a new China special version.” This type of internalized acceptance of self-censorship is dangerous, as PEN America points out, because “over time, writers and creators don’t even conceive of ideas, stories, or characters that would flout the rules, because there is no point in doing so.” The more that Beijing’s restrictions endure and become internalized, the less likely it is that productions that break those rules—exactly the productions that Taiwan is hoping to attract—will exist at all.
Even when projects that incite Beijing’s criticism make it into the production phase, they face the difficulty of securing resources. Sylvia Feng, one of the producers of Taiwan’s political TV drama Island Nation, stated in an interview that “Island Nation had difficulty attracting investors, cast, and crew. Institutions and individuals would often express enthusiasm for the show, but not follow through.” Many Taiwanese were afraid that participating in the drama would bar them from future jobs and opportunities in China, especially after Chinese state-media Global Times issued a verbal attack on the drama.
Finding distributors is another problem that Taiwanese productions face. Schwartzel noted that Netflix, which has signed a memorandum of understanding with TAICCA, may be more open to hosting China-sensitive content due to the fact that they do not operate in China. Yet, an anecdote related by Isaac Wang has indicated that an unnamed transnational streaming platform, also not operating in China, declined hosting Island Nation 2 due to fears that it would cause a public relations crisis. This example shows that even companies who do not have a Chinese presence might be hesitant to host Taiwanese content. Similar problems have also occurred in video game development, such as when hidden in-game criticism of Xi Jinping caused Red Candle Games’ Devotion to be pulled from international distributor Steam. After GOG.com also backed out from its agreement to sell the game, Devotion is now only available to buy directly from the Red Candle Games’ website. Additionally, those in the gaming industry have relayed that the incident has made both Western and Taiwanese publishers even more cautious about publishing Taiwanese content. Taiwanese productions are subjected to a higher level of scrutiny and have more difficulty finding international distributors and partners simply because they are made in Taiwan.
Top Gun: Maverick, while being one of the most high-profile cases of Hollywood censorship connected to Taiwan, also acts as an excellent example of why Hollywood should not be vying for Chinese funding indiscriminately. This example has not only revealed that money makes the final decisions in Hollywood, but it has also exposed that access to the Chinese market is not a sure investment. It could be that the volatility of the Chinese market will further erode Hollywood’s interest in pandering to CCP censorship. Yet, other measures also need to be taken domestically to safeguard creators against Beijing’s creative coercion.
- Protect against the globalization of CCP censorship: Production companies need to pledge that localized versions of content made for entry into the Chinese market will not be the same versions that are distributed to a global audience. Additionally, united action from trade associations such as the US Motion Picture Association should be leveraged for clearer censorship guidelines and closer regulation of Beijing’s demands.
- Resist the normalization of self-censorship in creative industries: To counter self-censorship, creators need to call attention to and discourage instances of censorship within the industry. Production companies also need to ensure that creators are educated about the dangers of such practices.
- Reduce the dependency of Taiwanese creators on the Chinese market: Greater effort needs to be made to connect Taiwanese creators with global resources, companies, and distributors. TAICCA’s International Co-Funding Program and Taiwan Pavilion are already positive moves in this direction, and ways in which these programs can be expanded need to be further explored.
As senior manager of TAICCA’s Content Lab Joyce Tang says, “As long as your film or story is specific to Chinese culture, or Asian culture in general, Taiwan is a really strong choice of location and production partner, because we have very few restrictions and social or political taboos.” Still, Taiwan does not exist in a political or economic vacuum. Although Taiwan can potentially benefit from Beijing’s unyielding stance towards soft power in the short-term, CCP censorship continues to creep into the global market, threatening the viability of this as a long-term strategy.
The main point: Although Taiwan has been able to benefit from Beijing’s strict content restrictions by positing itself as a freer creative environment, the increasing normalization of CCP censorship in creative industries continues to threaten the viability of this as a long-term strategy. United action from major players in creative industries is needed to maintain Taiwan’s creative space in terms of representations of Taiwan and Taiwanese creative industries’ enduring survival.