The Wake-Up Call From a Hollywood Executive “WE MUST STOP FEEDING THE DRAGON”

More and more people are criticizing Hollywood for ignoring China’s human rights abuse, which is now widely reported all over the world. It seems even they are kneeling in front of the Chinese Communist Party for money.

What intrigues us now is “how China comes to take control of Hollywood.” The Liberty talks to the author of “FEEDING THE DRAGON: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business,” who knows the behind-the-scenes negotiations.



Chris Fenton

Author: FEEDING THE DRAGON: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business
Long-time Producer & Media Executive
Produced or supervised twenty-three films, grossing more than $2 billion in worldwide box-office sales, packaged sixty-three others, and played a key role in Hollywood’s expansion into China.
Trustee of the US-Asia Institute and a Lifetime Member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee on US-China Relations.
His Twitter account: @TheDragonFeeder



――Firstly, let me ask you about your former business in China and the industry situation at that time. When you started your business in China, that country didn’t fully mean a huge market for the American entertainment field, because no one thought that China would play by the rules in that field. But we may be able to say that you and your business partner actually changed it into a kind of golden goose. Could you explain how did you realize that?

Mr. Fenton: Well, first of all, just as far as clarification is concerned. I was working at an agency, a talent agency called the William Morris Agency in the 90s. It was the largest in the world. And I came across a company in China. It had its founders and they were doing things in the advertising and marketing space and commercial production. And they asked me to help them with a couple of small English language movies that they were trying to do with Chinese financing. And I got to know them and I got to see what they were doing at a very early stage in China. And when I started a company that was similar to a boutique-version of the William Morris Agency, I continued to work with them. And as I was working with them, they started to get more and more interested in looking at the movie business overall in China because they felt like that market was going to get very large. And they were right. So, I worked with them to try to convince the studios and independent financiers to make movies with us where we would co-finance and co-produce them. One of them is Iron Man 3, as you know, from the book. I don’t think it was, in particular, any sort of genius or vision understanding that China was going to be big for Hollywood because everybody in any kind of business or industry knew that China had a huge, and growing consumer market to tap into.

But what was difficult about Hollywood versus other businesses like selling toothpaste or soap or coat hangers or whatever it is, is that Hollywood creates content, and that content has aspirational qualities of democracy in it – whether in your face or whether it’s more subliminal. And the Chinese government knows that, and they see the Hollywood studios as essentially propaganda for the West. They’re producers of propaganda from the West. So that in itself makes it very difficult to get the content into the country to monetize. So, we learned that in order to do that, we had to figure out how to sell to the Chinese government. And obviously, we had an infrastructure in China with Chinese executives that would deal directly with, at the time, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which reported to the Ministry of Propaganda, which reported obviously to the Chinese Communist Party and the Standing Committee. And at the time it was Hu Jintao who ran the country. And it was important that we sold to them why a particular movie made sense for them as a government to let it into the market. And once we got that done with the government, then we had access to sell it to the consumer. A lot of times you had to create relevancy with the movie that won support from the government first and then create relevancy in the movie so that consumers wanted to engage in it.

――You’ve played a key role in getting American films like Iron Man 3 and Looper screened in Beijing, and even for American sports, you kind of paved the way into the Chinese market. Could you tell us the reason why you changed your heart and decided to publish the book which reveals how Hollywood has fed the Chinese Communist Party?

Mr. Fenton: That’s a good question. So when I was doing that work and that was like―here we call it “a cog in the wheel”, right? There’s a lot of people involved in making movies. There’s a lot of people involved with getting the movies into China.

My role was obviously, and as you know from the book, working with colleagues in China who understood the Chinese government and what needed to get done, and they would relate to me. And it was sometimes a challenging or difficult sort of group of instructions that I was getting told that I would then have to relay to the studios in Hollywood and the filmmakers and say, “This is what we need.” But of course, you couldn’t just go tell them exactly what the Chinese government wanted because that was usually very difficult. So you had to come up with something that seemed palatable to everybody here in the US. And then, of course, no matter how palatable I thought it would be, they didn’t think it was very palatable, they thought it was strong-armed. Then they would tell me what they were willing to do. And then I would try to come up with a reason why that might work for the Chinese side. And then our executives who were dealing with the government would come up with ways to translate that to the Chinese government. And it would go back and forth like that. And then the execution of whatever we agreed to, like whether it was shooting Looper or doing The World’s Strongest Man Competition or being involved with Point Break, a 2015 action-thriller film, or Iron Man 3 or the Olympics, or whatever it was, it was very chaotic, it was very colorful, it was very trailblazing and adventurous. And through all that, I always thought that someday I might want to write those stories out, what exactly happened because I thought they were very relevant to these two superpowers, the United States and China, and how just this small microcosm of the dynamic came to be from 2000 to 2019. I was really excited to write that.

What changed sort of the thought or the theme behind it was I had just come back from a US congressional delegation trip. I’m a trustee for the US Asia Institute, so I sometimes co-host US congressional members in China as we meet with people that we’re introduced to by the National People’s Congress and the Foreign Ministry and we tour China with these US congressional delegation people. And when we were in Hong Kong, I got to meet with Carrie Lam, who obviously runs Hong Kong and then others in the judiciary system there, and various other government officials. And then we also got to meet with protesters.

That was in August of 2019 when we were there on that last trip so we were in the middle of these major protests. So that was part of how I started to see China differently because I started to see a very aggressive China or a Chinese Communist Party that wasn’t something I noticed as much before or wasn’t as aware of. And shortly after I got back from that trip, Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, tweeted out his support for the Hong Kong protesters. Just a simple tweet. From Japan too! He tweeted it from Japan, a country that supports democratic ideals and free speech! But that tweet caused a huge geopolitical firestorm in China. And what was interesting was watching how the NBA and the players reacted to that. And it was that moment, those moments, where I realized, “Oh, my gosh, they were doing the exact same thing, we all had been doing all this time. We in Hollywood stayed quiet about fundamental principles and values we held dearly as citizens in the West simply to gain access to China’s lucrative consumer market. And the NBA was doing the same.” And quite frankly, we worked with the NBA too as you read in my book. We were all doing there same thing and we were all doing it under this mission of globalism and bringing jobs, creating jobs in America, growing the GDP, and spreading the aspirational qualities of democracy. But at the same time that we thought we were achieving that, the Chinese government was actually imposing a lot of its will on the people that were doing this, whether it’s free speech issues, staying quiet on human rights issues, not commenting on things such as Hong Kong or Taiwan, staying quiet as far as a hawk when it comes to national security issues, all that kind of stuff. We were compromising who we are from the West and whether you were American or whether you were somebody from Japan or Korea or Europe, we were all in the same boat and we are all complicit.

And that was when I realized I want to tell the story but I want to tell it with a beginning, middle, and end of what I was thinking during that time which was really about “how you open China”. That globalist periods, an important mission, but one that turned out to be misguided. And I wanted to end that story – my book – when I felt like it was a great ending which was when Iron Man 3 broke all the records and all that kind of stuff. And then I wanted to have an afterword where I brought up the idea that — now cut to today or relatively today — I’m realizing that what we were doing was not in the best interests of the West and we needed to start to think about how to address that and fix it and not do it via war or not do it via a decoupling that creates a massive cold war and frozen relationship but do it in a constructive way.

――So you started to see through the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Fenton: Well, I never believed China was a democracy by any stretch, not even close. I mean, it felt like it was a communist country. In fact, there were certain moments you would have there on the ground where you were always reminded it was communist, but it also had capitalism with Chinese characteristics. It had socialism with Chinese characteristics. It had certain things that at times would make you forget that it was communist. But the part that to me was more nefarious, more pernicious, was the fact that China wasn’t just interested in creating this bubble around their own country, where it was communist, and everybody else had their own abilities and freedoms and rights and all that kind of stuff.

What came to me was that China wanted to impose what they are on the rest of the world. They wanted their narrative carried out throughout the world. And you see it all the time. It sounds like a conspiracy but it’s not. When Marriott, the hotel chain, wants to show a map with Taiwan and China and the Chinese government says, “You can’t show Taiwan as a separate country on your hotel map,” and Marriott goes, “Well, it sort of is.” “No, it’s not.” The Chinese government says, “No, you’re wrong,” and they say, “You better change that or you’re not doing business in China,” and Marriott changes it. That is China dictating what the story is, what the narrative is for the rest of the world in regards to what Taiwan is. Now we can get into the Taiwan China conflict which we probably should save for other experts that know that space. But the bottom line is, I know I understand soft power and culture and narrative. And what that is, is the Chinese Communist Party telling the rest of the world what they want them to think, how they want them to view China, how they view China’s position in the world. And that is not acceptable because we are not okay with China criticizing Japan. If you read the Global Times or Xinhua or China Daily or whatever it is, you see criticism all the time by the Chinese government. And we in Japan don’t go, “Oh, you criticized us. We’re not going to let Chinese solar panels into our country.” The US doesn’t do that either. But the US or Japan can’t criticize the Chinese government.

――You pointed out that the 2012 hit movie, “Looper,” is an example of making a movie that fits Beijing’s demands. On this point, could you expand on your thoughts in greater detail?

Mr. Fenton: When you think about Looper, I like to think of it almost as a marketer or an advertiser. If you try to brand integrate a product like a can of Pepsi into a television show or an automobile that wants to be advertised in the show, you can create a plot inside the television show or in the movie that incorporates the Audi so that Iron Man 3 or Tony Stark’s driving around in it or an Aston Martin so James Bond is driving it. And that creates marketing and branding for that automobile that consumers like.

With China with Looper, we needed to brand integrate China into the movie. And we needed to do it not only for consumers to go, “Oh, that’s relevant to me. I’m excited. Summer Qing is one of the Chinese famous stars. Shanghai is shot in the background. Oh, the beaches in the coastal towns outside of Shanghai are used. I see things that are familiar to me. That’s exciting. That’s relevant,” that’s one thing.

But the other thing was needed to brand integrate the movie with China so that the Chinese Communist Party accepted it and approved it. And one of the things we needed to do was create China into the utopian destination of the future where people, when they retire, want to live, where the most technology-advanced city Shanghai of the future is there and people want to be there. We needed to create China as the center of the world, and that’s what we did. But we did it in a very subtle way. Rian Johnson, who’s the writer-director of it figured out what we needed. And then he tried to incorporate that so that it didn’t marginalize or make the movie less compelling for audiences around the world. He figured out how to find that interesting mixture so it continued to be a great story yet also satisfied what the Chinese government wanted.

――Regarding Iron Man 3, it is said that there was a possibility that a new character who was modeled on President Xi Jinping would appear in the movie. Is that true?

Mr. Fenton: Well, in the book, I talk about an idea I had to use Xi Jinping’s history of having lived in the middle of the United States of America and the idea of him possibly having a kid who is with him during that exchange who may have discovered Tony Stark in the middle of a snowy field and saved his life. In the book, I talk about my pitching that idea, which I thought was, I mean it gives me the shivers thinking about it now, but at the time, I thought it was a great idea. And I pitched it to all the people at Marvel, and they ultimately thought it was just too much and too unbelievable. And in fact, no one knew who Xi Jinping was at the time because he was just becoming the leader of China. That was happening right in that transition. And number two is no one knew that any of these Chinese Communist Party leaders had lived on these exchanges in the United States of America, which is actually a very unique experience that, quite frankly, I think a lot of United States leaders should actually do with other parts of the world. It’s a smart way to learn about another country. So, I applaud the Chinese government on that. But, ultimately, they passed on that idea. And even to talk about it now is really a little bit shocking because it really reiterates the pandering and the kowtowing criticism that Hollywood gets when it comes to China.

――Could you share with us any other films which changed their plot to fit Beijing’s demands, especially concerning Uyghur, Hong Kong, or Taiwanese issues?

Mr. Fenton: Well, there’s plenty of movies that catered to China, right, I mean whether they cast Chinese actors in the films or whether they use Chinese directors or whether they use Chinese backdrops or whether they use Chinese plot points or things that would inherently please the Chinese government. I mean Transformers is one, there’s the Transformers franchise. There’s Marvel that has tried by hiring Chloe Zhao for Shang-Chi. There’s Disney that tried to do it with Mulan and Raya and the Last Dragon and there are movies that were particularly heavy-handed when it came to China, whether it was the second Pacific Rim movie or whether it was that big sort of megalodon movie called The Meg. There are lots of examples.

Are there examples of movies involving Taiwan or the Uyghur issue or Hong Kong? No. Because if they are an idea, they never make it past the idea stage because a studio will not want to make them. For instance, look at Alex Gibney and a filmmaker named Gabe Polsky. Alex Gibney is one of the greatest documentarians in the world. Gabe Polsky is a fantastic, award-winning writer-director. They have the rights to my book to make a documentary about the US-China relationship, and a lot of the buyers that the talent agency, United Talent Agency, was pitching it to for meetings wouldn’t even take a meeting because they were too nervous about that film being too controversial to the Chinese government. So that’s an example of after 1997, when Kundun, and 7 years in Tibet, and Red Corner were all made, and the Richard Gere stuff came out, all that was the year that changed Hollywood into this premeditated censorship stance where they won’t make certain things because they know the Chinese government will get mad.

――As you know, Disney’s Mulan is widely criticized as it was filmed in Xinjiang, where human rights abuses have been reported. Despite Disney holding out the ideal of diversity, it seems they ignore ethnic cleansing and we see this situation as hypocritical. Regarding this Disney-China relationship, we assume that you know behind-the-scenes talks. Could you tell us about it?

Mr. Fenton: Well, have I worked with Disney and am I friends with people at Disney? Yes. Do I know exactly what was happening with that geopolitical controversy and what they were doing on it? No. Because I think they would want to not let many people know what their strategy was there.

Can I guess what their strategy was? Yes. It was to try to keep quiet and not create a bigger problem than it was. And I also don’t believe, knowing some of the producers involved with that particular movie, I don’t think they really understood where those days of shooting were taking place and the significance of it. I think it was something that was overlooked in a bad way, particularly also because when the movie was shot, the knowledge of Xinjiang wasn’t quite as well known on an overall basis as it is today. Now I’m not making excuses, but I can see how it happened, and I can also understand why Disney’s strategy with these kinds of things is to stay quiet because they have so much money on the line in that market. In fact, I know firsthand because Iron Man 3 and Marvel were something I worked with, and I’ve been to this Shanghai park for Disney in China. And I know how long because we were involved with them in early stages a long time ago, how long they’ve been involved in trying to open China up to their products and services. For them to speak up would essentially nullify all of that effort. Now that’s not an excuse when it comes to the ethics and morals of what’s going on, especially for a company that is supposed to protect the freedom of creative expression, as a pillar of Hollywood, of free speech, of creativity.

So, what is the answer? Well, the answer isn’t to blame Disney for not doing the right thing. It’s more about coming to grips with the fact that all industries, all businesses, and all individuals that have been running these companies have been complicit in the problem that we have today. And if we’re going to fix it, there’s no one company or one celebrity or one NBA player that can fix it. It’s going to take a unified front of Disney and all of its partners and all of the Hollywood community. It’s going to take LeBron James and all of the NBA and Enes Kanter. It’s going to take the WTA, the World Tennis Association, who took a stand because of Peng Shuai. It’s going to take the ATP and the men’s tour to join. And it’s going to take other leagues having to join and other athletes and quite frankly, the IOC, the Olympic Committee, to get something that creates enough leverage to help fix and address this problem. That is the hard part about all this.

――So we have to form a united front line.

Mr. Fenton: Yeah. Well, China knows Sun Tzu(孫武), the author of “‎The Art of War.” If you have an enemy, you divide then. If they’re divided, they can be conquered. Now I’m not saying China is tangibly warlike and aggressive. I’m just saying if they isolate a particular business or a particular company that knows that if they take a stand, they’ll be replaced by somebody else. And that’s the problem that Disney has. And without others backing them, it makes sense for them to stay quiet, not for you and I going, “Well, what’s ethical? What’s moral?” It’s not critical to them. But for the fiduciaries, it is. For their investors and shareholders, it does make sense. And that, unfortunately, is why this current engagement has such a strong push by the business lobby to keep it the way it is because money is so big.

――Would you think any positive portrayal of China in a Hollywood movie has affected American public opinion?

Mr. Fenton: Well, I’d like to believe it does when you’re talking about the country of China and the people of China because I have lots of friends who are Chinese. And I actually really enjoy visiting and doing business and being in China too. What our problem is, the way the Chinese government operates. And its encroachment beyond its borders, whether on a national security level and economic security level, a free speech level, a human rights level is intolerable and that is the problem we have. And if we can’t address that, that’s going to be the challenge that overcomes us, right? And if we’re portraying the Chinese people and the Chinese country well in a movie -because I have no problem with that – because I don’t have a problem with the country or the people. But if we’re taking orders from the Chinese government and putting it into films and putting their narrative into films and the things they want people to think in their films, then that’s a problem.

――We would like to ask you about the world of sports. NBA and Nike seem to have sold its soul to China for billion dollars and even Japanese people see that relationship as strange. You might know very much about how they negotiated with the Chinese Communist Party and expanded their business there. Could you tell us how they succeeded?

Mr. Fenton: Well, the NBA is probably one of the longest-running efforts in regard to getting their product and services into China. It started in the late 80s, as you know from the book with David Stern and Michael Jordan. And then Nike obviously joined that. And the beauty of the sport of basketball is it can be played by really anyone, anywhere. All it takes is a ball and a couple of hoops and cement or asphalt that you can bounce the ball on, right? And then Yao Ming really took it to the next level when he became a Chinese-born and raised athlete that made it in the NBA. So, all of that, combined with the fact that there was an aspirational quality of the sport that brings sort of this cultural fabric into China that felt new and fresh and something global and the relevancy of the sport and some of the players to the Chinese consumer made it really exciting. And the Chinese government loves competition. And they felt like they could create their own athletes that could compete on the world stage and also embrace the NBA players as peers. And I think over time, all of that effort paid off and it created the most important league in China for many years. But they also had plans to create an imitation league because the Chinese Basketball Association, which the NBA’s also involved in, and that has gained a lot of momentum because of what happened going back to Daryl Morey and the 76ers when they hired Daryl Morey. And then now Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics and all the other controversies that have created issues for the NBA. Every time the NBA comes backward in the sort of things that they are caught up in, another controversy, the CBA goes forward. So, it’s sort of very similar to other industries where imitators have been built by the companies that they’re imitating

――How can we proceed with the process of a full decoupling from China?

Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s very complicated. I don’t think we’ve really thought it through, either. I mean, there’s 40 plus years of engagement between the US and Japan and Korea and all of the regional countries that are democracies in that part, but are very entangled with China, too. So, it’s very difficult to just say, “Oh, we need to isolate China and freeze them out,” because that’s going to create all kinds of problems. What we need to do concerns our engagement moving forward and protecting the important aspects of what makes our nations great. If we can figure that out, along with how to have a proper dynamic with China, that’s how we can win. We can monetize a huge market there. We can keep everybody working with China in some sort of strategic competition kind of way where at least we’re not moving towards war, right? That’s not what we want. And hopefully, make the world overall a little bit safer of a place than it is now.

――Recently, WTA, the Women’s Tennis Association, declared that they would suspend all tournaments in China. Would you expect the NBA would follow that decision?

Mr. Fenton: I’m hopeful that what the WTA did, which was, I think, the momentum built from the Chinese tennis player who was thought to have gone missing. People were really upset and it made a lot of sense. I think they did it because it worked considering the momentum there. But right now, the WTA is out there by itself. No one is backing them. My hope is somebody does – like the NBA or some other league. I’m doubtful that is going to happen without capitalism getting in the way or involving itself. And what I mean by that is they would love to see Japan, for instance, or the United States or another market step up to the WTA and say, “Hey, we know you shut down all your business in China. We would like to add another event. We’re going to put this much prize money together, and we are going to compensate you outside of China in a way that rewards what you did.” And I’d like to see sponsors do the same thing and reward them for their activism in a way that they believe they can brand the WTA as something that’s bigger than the sport itself, which means they can monetize it with consumers that are going to reward the sponsors for sponsoring the WTA, all right? That is what we need to see – by doing something that is the right thing, you can actually create capitalism from it.

――The Biden administration has announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics. How would you see this decision?

Mr. Fenton: I think it’s a good decision. It’s at least a good positive step forward. I think it’s something that had to happen because it truly validates the Chinese government, given all the problems right now, by everybody showing up for these Olympics, including political leaders, I think would have been a wrong message. So at least we’re not doing that now. I would like to see sponsors do the same thing. Perhaps even NBC Universal not covering it, because I think that would give a real message to the Chinese Communist Party that we need to change this dynamic. The world is not happy with the way you’re behaving right now.

――There are a number of Japanese companies which still continue their business in China and don’t have the intention to decouple. How do you see this situation?

Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s the same conundrum that Disney has and the NBA and others. I think we need to look at the fact that businesses are supposed to make money; they’re supposed to grow; they’re supposed to be fiduciaries for their shareholders and investors. And I’d like to believe that now that the consumer around the world is aware of what’s going on, they’re going to start to look at these businesses as wanting them to do the right thing. And if they do the right thing, I’d like to believe that these businesses can expand and grow in other markets around the world, not only with the present business that they are already known for but also maybe expanding their brand to one that’s more activist, more doing what’s right, what’s ethical, moral. Because in total, we find a way to replace China revenues or to reward companies for doing the right thing. It’s going to be hard for them to stand up to China. That’s the real conundrum. It’s all about money.

――That’s everything I wanted to ask. Thank you!

Mr. Fenton: My pleasure, I loved the questions; they’re very thoughtful. I’m a big fan of Japan. Thank your audience and tell them how much I’m a fan of the country. I sincerely hope the United States and Japan and all of our allies can work together to find solutions to the complicated issues we all face with China. I know we can. And we will! And the whole world will benefit!!

The Wake-Up Call From a Hollywood Executive “WE MUST STOP FEEDING THE DRAGON”
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