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Petkov: Power to the People…’s Republic

Antonio Petkov, Columnist

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It seems endorsing endeavors that will come back to haunt us is an enduring part of our national character. This time, I’m not referring to backing the mujahideen, Pinochet or Saddam Hussein, although those are the staples of my fatuous political diatribes.

Future TV, one of seven firms streaming media to Chinese homes via the Internet and Smart TVs, has been giving Hollywood a bit of a headache due to their evasion of tens of millions of dollars in licensing fees and uploading copyrighted films. Ironically, one of the organizations originally willing to back Future TV when it was a startup was the Motion Picture Association of America. Since then, it has become apparent that Future is not really a startup, given that its largest shareholders are China’s official state-run television provider, Tencent Holdings, and Xiaomi Corp. Tencent is the No. 1 Internet provider in China, and Xiaomi Corp is Apple’s chief rival in China when it comes to the sale of mid-priced smartphones. Conveniently, Xiaomi sells cheap set top boxes ($50) which stream free content. Another conflict of interest arises when we examine Tencent’s deals with both Disney and Future TV regarding streaming content, despite Disney’s claims that Future TV has not paid to use much of Disney’s content. 

Instead of blacklisting China though, Hollywood has responded to this activity by actively pursuing China as a market, even arousing suspicion from the Securities and Exchange Commission as to whether executives bribed Chinese government officials for gain market access.< The theater-building boom during the past decade is part of the reason for the suddenly lucrative cinema scene in the People’s Republic. Another compelling reason is Disney’s potential to earn 38 percent of box office profits if its films are U.S.-Chinese co-productions. This would involve part of the films being shot on Chinese soil and bearing up to the scrutiny of Chinese censors. Hollywood’s Digital Media Group has been at the forefront of courting the all-important censors and regulators, whose influence determines the fate of U.S.-Chinese co-productions. In 2009, DMG co-produced "The Founding of a Republic," supposedly a state-backed propaganda film. There are several ironies in this whole situation, not the least of which is Hollywood’s hypocrisy. They are concerned with what is effectively state-sponsored Chinese piracy and distribution of their content, and yet they are currently sidling up to Chinese state censors and government officials (not exactly pillar-saints when it comes to freedom of expression or ideas) to tap the burgeoning Chinese box office market. They are willing not only to co-produce Hollywood films with state TV in order to gain a 13 percent greater profit, but also to co-produce Chinese propaganda films and pander to government bureaucrats and censors to get that profit. Lucrative? Yes. Ethical? Not particularly. If Hollywood is going to lecture on piracy, maybe it shouldn’t be so proud of seeking corruption of Chinese officials to afford them a toehold in the Chinese film market, regardless of how lucrative it may seem. Besides, such actions have the potential to alienate viewers at home. The “if you can’t beat them, join them” mindset does not mesh well with our desire to lead by example; sinking to their level is not the solution. Moreover, if the United States is to remain the world’s foremost promoter of free speech, it might be best to decrease the collaboration with Chinese censors and the tailoring of American movies to Chinese regulations purely for monetary gain. It’s like Clinton-era outsourcing all over again, albeit with slightly less at stake than our jobs and production techniques. Antonio Petkov is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at antoniopetkov2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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