Why did our Society establish a publishing partnership in the People’s Republic of China?

Without Beijing even uttering a critical word,
MGM is changing the villians in its ‘Red Dawn’ remake
from Chinese to North Korean.
It’s all about maintaining access
to the Asian superpower’s lucrative box office.

By Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times
March 16, 2011

Lea Thompson in the 1984 version of "Red Dawn," (via the Kobal Collection & the Los Angeles Times)

China has become such an important market for U.S. entertainment companies that one studio has taken the extraordinary step of digitally altering a film to excise bad guys from the Communist nation lest the leadership in Beijing be offended.

When MGM decided a few years ago to remake “Red Dawn,” a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009. But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products.

As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

The changes illustrate just how much sway China’s government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest. …

Read the whole thing here.

Ha Jin

That story sounds painfully familiar: In 2007, Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic, killed Ha Jin’s story about censorship in China — just days before NGS executives flew to Beijing to celebrate our Society’s new publishing partnership with the People’s Republic of China.

Familiar, yes (especially to regular readers of Society Matters) — but there’s one critical difference between MGM and NGS.

MGM’s executives must provide a financial return to the company’s investors. If we don’t do business in China, the CEO of MGM could justifiably say, then our investors will abandon us for other companies that will do what’s necessary to access China’s massive market. We must go to China because we have no other choice.       

But the National Geographic Society does have a choice. There are no stockholders pounding the table at NGS, demanding a return on their investment. These is no labor union demanding higher wages for its workers. There is no membership group calling for the Society — a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization — to keep expanding. There is no private foundation running the show from behind the scenes.

There’s just John Fahey — our Society’s Chairman and CEO — and the 20 people who serve on National Geographic’s Board of Trustees. (The list at nationalgeographic.com is out of date, so here’s our up-to-date version.) They, and they alone, enjoy the enormous luxury of having a choice — to go to China, or not. They, and they alone, decide whether our Society and our society are better off beneath the anaconda in the chandelier.

Question is: Given what our Society had to sacrifice to get into China, why did we choose to go in the first place?


NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.