Chris Fenton joins the podcast to discuss China’s influence in America and how it has evolved over the years. We explore the history of Hollywood and media in the culture and whether or not they can be a force for good. We also discuss the complicated place the U.S. business community finds itself in with the Chinese Communist Party—is it still possible to export American ideals through capitalism, or is that a thing of the past?  

For seventeen years, Chris Fenton served as president of DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group and GM of DMG North America—a multi-billion-dollar global media company headquartered in Beijing. He has produced or supervised twenty-one films, grossing $2 billion in worldwide box-office sales. As an author, Fenton chronicled much of that work in Feeding The Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business. At present, he speaks regularly on China and the exchange of commerce and culture globally and hosts U.S. Congressional member delegations on diplomatic missions to China and ASEAN countries focused on trade, media, and investment.


TRANSCRIPT

Beverly Hallberg:

And welcome to She Thinks, the podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today’s episode, we talk about China’s influence in America and how it has evolved over the decades. We’re going to explore the history of Hollywood and media and the culture, and whether or not they can be a force of good today. We’re also going to discuss the complicated place that US businesses find themselves in with the Chinese Communist Party. Is it still possible to export American ideas through capitalism, or is that a thing of the past?

Well, we have a wonderful guest to break this all down for us. Chris Fenton joins us. For a 17 years, Chris Fenton served as president of DMG Entertainment motion picture group, and GM of DMG North America, multi-billion dollar global media company headquartered in Beijing. He has produced or supervised 21 films, grossing two billion in worldwide box office sales. And as an author, Chris chronicled much of that work in Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business. At present, he speaks regularly on China and the exchange of commerce and culture globally and hosts US congressional member delegations on diplomatic missions to China focused on trade, media and investment. Chris, a pleasure to have you on She Thinks.

Chris Fenton:

Hey, it’s great to be on. Thanks for having me. And by the way, those congressional delegations have obviously been a little bit on ice, and what’s interesting is the last one I did in person in China where we actually went to Hong Kong too was with Congressman Alan Leventhal, who, if you’ve been following the news, was one of the congressional members that landed in Taiwan earlier this week.

Beverly Hallberg:

There’s so much to discuss with that. And I’m just curious, so your entrance into Hollywood, did you think that your passions would flow over into working with US congressmen, going on these delegations? Did you expect the political side to be part of your career?

Chris Fenton:

Well, actually I got an engineering degree from Cornell University up in Upstate New York. I really knew nothing about the Hollywood business. I just happened to fall into it when I was working odd jobs out here in LA thinking about whether I wanted to live here permanently or not. So I fell into Hollywood and quite frankly just as much as I fell into Hollywood I also fell into the China business. I first came across it in the late 1990s, very early the year 2000, when I came across a small movie as an agent at the William Morris Agency that was fully financed by an entity in China and it involved a lot of interesting creative flair in it that I hadn’t really seen before and it turned out China was just starting to be this fledgling creative outlet for filmmakers that was just about to get noticed on the global stage.

Beverly Hallberg:

And so much has changed in the time that you have worked in Hollywood. Can you tell us, maybe share some of the films that you’ve worked on over time just so people have a little bit more context?

Chris Fenton:

Well, for people that are looking at this visually, you can see behind me there’s the Chinese Looper poster, which was a movie that starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, and Bruce Willis. And then over my other shoulder is Iron Man 3, which was a huge collaboration between China and the United States in terms of the third installment of Iron Man. Both were movies that we brand integrated China relevancy into the actual plots, into the actual cruise involved and actually some of the financing that was involved to make those movies. And that was all done in order to get better access to that growing market.

Beverly Hallberg:

And let’s talk about the market in China. Hollywood seems to be something that they love, Chinese individuals, Chinese people love to go to the movies there. How important is Hollywood to the culture?

Chris Fenton:

Well, if we were in, say, 2018, I would say all of what you just said was 100% accurate. Unfortunately now the relationship between the US and China is extremely strained and that has worked its way through the Chinese populace to a point where the Chinese consumer isn’t super excited about anything that’s branded with America, and Hollywood is obviously at the center of that. I liken it a little bit to the way United States citizens or consumers look at, say, anything that’s coming from Russia right now. So we’re definitely seeing China, their government, abate the amount of films that get into that market just simply to have access to that consumer. And even if they do get in, that consumer is turning a blind eye to it and actually preferring domestic made Chinese productions.

Beverly Hallberg:

And where does that stem from? Obviously there is the propaganda arm of the Chinese government and what they tell their people, what they allow their people to see, but it seems like it’s more than just that, there is almost this homegrown anti-American sentiment. What do you attribute that to?

Chris Fenton:

Well, look, in my book, in fact, I talk a lot about how to know the basics to how China operates in order to activate whatever your action plan is in that market, because it’s so nuanced and it’s so China and China if you really dig deep in the onion peels. So you really have to pull back and look at the macro scenario and understand more about what’s happening there, and if you look at it in the most macro sense, you have the Chinese Communist Party, which is led by Xi Jinping and seven standing committee members of the Politburo, and their biggest goal is to keep 1.4 billion people just happy enough that they don’t revolt. And I say just happy enough because there’s just simply not enough resources on earth to make 1.4 billion people happy. So part of that is making sure they have all of what they need and some of what they want, and the aspirations and this idea that their system will allow them to get more of what they want.

So if you look at Hollywood and the Hollywood influence of the movies that come into that market, there is a soft power propaganda mechanism in there that comes from the West. There’s Western ideals, principles, values, et cetera. So the Chinese government is very careful to make sure not too much of that matriculates into their populace, because if that populace starts to think they should have more and more just like the West or have more and more freedoms just like the West, then that is how things start to lead towards a revolution. So it’s always been very, very carefully protected what they allow in from the outside and Hollywood is a big part of that import that they really try to mitigate to protect that control that they have.

Beverly Hallberg:

What are those conversations like? Do they get a screenings of films and say, “Hey, we want this removed? We don’t like this.” And because they may be financing a big portion of the movie, then the movie directors end up taking stuff out, or what are those conversations like?

Chris Fenton:

Well, it’s a give and take, and you have to think about trying to satisfy the goal of the Chinese Communist Party. So in the case of, say, Looper where it’s a time travel movie and time travel is banned from Western forms of propaganda. Why? Because the Chinese government wants to control the narrative of where China has come from and where China is going. So part of getting Looper in, which involves present day world and 40 years in the future world was to work with the Chinese government to say, “Okay, we want to portray China in a way that you want it portrayed 40 years in the future. We want to create it into the mecca where people want to go, because that’s where the weight of the world is moving.” And that’s exactly what we did in that movie. And that allowed us getting access not only to the market, but it also allowed us the ability to get in usually censored items that would keep movies from getting in.

Number one, time travel. Number two, we did show drug abuse on the shores of China in Shanghai. We actually showed mafia elements and crime elements. Those are things that are usually erased in any sort of film or kept from a movie being seen in China. So we got away with a lot because we promoted China as this place to live in the future.

Beverly Hallberg:

And let’s take a movie that’s very popular right now, “Top Gun: Maverick,” of course, it’s had amazing sales in the United States. There is some controversy with whether or not that would be allowed in China. How do you think those conversations went?

Chris Fenton:

Well, there’s the controversy that actually really was the nail in the coffin, but let’s face it, “Top Gun” is a fantastic form of Western soft power propaganda. It really promotes the West, it’s military prowess, and quite frankly the ideals and beliefs and all the principles that we stand behind as Americans. So just getting that movie in without anything overly sensitive outside of just that macro view would’ve been difficult to get that film in and accessed by any Chinese consumer. But what really put the nail in the coffin was the fact that there was a jacket that Tom Cruise wore that had the Taiwanese flag on it. And because Tencent, a Chinese tech giant, was part of the financing of that film, Tencent knew that patch of the Taiwanese flag had to get removed so they requested it to be removed, and that was in 2019. And essentially what happened was …

Okay. Let’s talk about if you look at what exactly happened in that jacket, the Tencent, which is actually part of the Chinese government, like every private entity, knew that was going to be very sensitive so they asked for it to be removed. That was in 2019, the trailer for the film actually came out showing that patch removed. People who were very incited by the Daryl Morey tweet, which was heard around the world, which was the GM of the Houston Rockets who showed how NBA was kowtowing to China. That was what really inflamed that situation. So critics, journalists, politicians, consumers started to come out and say, “Wait, why is that patch removed?”

Paramount Studios and Tom Cruise heard that rhetoric heard that critique and actually put it back on. When they put it back on, Tencent dropped out of the movie, and cut to today, that patch is on the jacket in the actual final cut of the movie. So that would definitely blackball any film from getting into the market to begin with, and then you combine it with the macro aspects of the soft power push of democracy and the prowess of the United States and the West, you really have a potent combo to make sure you’re never seen in China.

Beverly Hallberg:

And this is where I think the debate is, which is some people say any type of Western ideals we can get into China or other type of governments that do suppress their people, we should be promoting that, it’s a way to show capitalism, but the other side is should we be negotiating with a country like China where they have horrible human rights abuses against people. We’ve talked about, for example, on She Thinks, this program, about the horrible atrocities to the weaker population, the Muslim minority population in China. And so, in your opinion, what is that balance of should we do business with them to try to promote democracy, or is this a country that we should just cut ties with altogether?

Chris Fenton:

That’s a fantastic question and it’s super complicated. But I will say, if I go back to my book, I have a thing called Fenton’s five forces of diplomacy and that involves human rights, national security issues, politics, culture, and commerce. Essentially three of those we don’t agree with them on, national security interests, politics, and human rights, but we do have culture and commerce that have some sort of common threat. That culture and commerce glue the ability to have some sort of exchange between two superpowers is crucial to prevent us from moving into a cold war or what could be even worse, which is war. So we need to have some sort of exchange. And quite frankly, over the last 40 years we have entangled ourselves so much that to simply decouple would probably result in war. So what we need to do is look at strategically what we should decouple from when it comes to China.

Obviously huge national security supply chain issues, certain things when it comes down to technology, certain things that really suppress our ability to have free speech like pandering to the Chinese government in order to get movies in, which, by the way, Hollywood’s supposed to be the bastion of creative freedom and free speech. We need to go back to that. And quite frankly, what will occur is that if we make good movies that are universal and have some relevancy to China, just like they do in other markets around the world, they will get in there and they will work.

But this whole idea of brand integrating the China message and narrative and things that we don’t abide by as United States citizens or people from the West as far as our values and principles, that has to stop because the risk reward calculus just simply isn’t worth it anymore. So the bottom line is, the answer to your question, I do not support a full decoupling from China. I think that’s bad for all of us, but we need to severely, disruptively, and constructively rebalance the relationship so that it’s no longer tilted to just one side of the Pacific.

Beverly Hallberg:

Let’s talk about Hollywood in general, and that is they often don’t promote America as being a great place. How is that played when movies are very negative about Western culture, America itself? Yes, there are honest critiques about our past, but there has been more critique against American values as a whole in recent movies. How is that playing in China? And do you think that Hollywood is actually being pretty destructive, whether it’s in their award ceremonies talking about our values or in the movies themselves, has it been destructive to our perception across the world, especially as we’re trying to reach out to the Chinese people and show what could be possible for them?

Chris Fenton:

Well, it’s a layered question, but there’s a great expert by the name of Bill Bishop, who’s inside the beltway, somebody you should probably have on at some point, he talks about the lack of reciprocity between the two countries. The fact that Qin Gang, the ambassador to China has full access to Twitter to essentially say whatever he wants to say to the American public or whoever is on Twitter digesting whatever information’s there, he can critique us all he wants and anybody who’s actually listening to him can see that. We don’t have that reciprocity in that country. Our ambassador to China does not have the ability to go on Weibo and essentially say, “I don’t agree with the Chinese Communist Party on this. We have every right to visit Taiwan. I support Nancy Pelosi.” He has no ability to go out and do that and have the Chinese public reached in terms of that type of critique, that type of point of view, that type of perspective.

So if you’re looking at the way Hollywood should approach China and the way China should allow us to have access, at the very least we should be able to say what we want to say. Now, if they want to keep us from having access to points of, say, in the Oscars where we speak up against China, they can blur that out, they do that all the time. But the fact of the matter is the idea of them cart blanching particular studios or particular filmmakers for one person standing up and saying something, that’s something we need to step back behind and support and say, “As a community, we no longer are going to tolerate that. We want our voices heard and we’re going to do it, and we’re not going to play the game that we played the last 20 years.”

Beverly Hallberg:

And I was hoping you could speak a little bit to just the coordination of their global propaganda, you mentioned social media, Chinese officials are pouring into social media and to the press. How much of this is part of China’s Communist Party to coordinate how their officials relate to the media, relate to social media and the messages that get out there?

Chris Fenton:

Well, I think the Chinese government is extremely competent when it comes to narrative and guiding narrative and guiding messaging. And they’ve been really good in terms of even flipping on a dime the perspective of their populace over anything in a very quick amount of time. For instance, I was there in 2012 when there was lots of uprising in different areas of the country. There were stabbings at bus stations. There was a drive through of Tiananmen Square that killed several people, and there was a lot of kindling that looked like it could have sparked a revolution, and immediately Chinese narrative through CCTV, through the networks, through different digital platforms, through newspapers started to create this nationalism that was sparked by the PLA starting to take certain directives around disputed territories that Japan actually has under their domain. And there were all kinds of water gun battles between coast guards, et cetera, and what you immediately saw was everybody forget about the type of issues that they had with the Chinese government, the things they were frustrated about being in China, and they turned all that energy against Japan.

There were Molotov cocktails thrown at the Japanese embassy, there were Toyotas overturned and caught on fire in Shanghai, et cetera. So, that’s just one example of how they can turn the tide on narrative extremely quickly. So if you see the way they know how to manage their 1.4 billion people in a very quick and efficient manner by feeding the right info out, they’ve gotten to be experts at it across the world, and they have full access, thanks to us, to all kinds of social media platforms and even to newspapers today. You can see advertisements that are bought and paid for by the Chinese government or different entities in China to try to make messaging out there work and get through the populace here in the US.

So they’ve gotten very good at it and they’re very subtle at it too. It’s hard to see. It’s one of the big reasons why I’m against having TikTok allowed in the United States of America. I think we need to follow India’s leadership and say, “You know what? We do not want a Beijing controlled social media platform here in the United States,” especially one that my two 15 year olds use on a daily basis.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, I want to take a brief moment to let you, our listeners, know the Independent Women’s Forum is the leading national women’s organization dedicated to developing and advancing policies that are more than just well-intended. They actually enhance people’s freedoms, opportunities, and wellbeing for women and men like you on the go, we are here to bring that news to you. So listen to our “High Noon” podcast, an intellectual download featuring conversations that make a free society possible. You hear guests like Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin discuss the most controversial subjects of the day. Or join us for a happy hour with “At The Bar” where hosts Inez Stepman and Jennifer Braceras on the latest issues at the intersection of law, politics and culture. You can listen to past episodes at iwf.org, search for High Noon or At The Bar in your favorite podcast app.

Now, coming back to you, Chris, I want to bring up what you were just discussing about the importance of fighting back in different ways. You mentioned maybe not letting TikTok operate in the United States, I think that’s a very smart decision. There’s also how being tough towards China, how effective is that? We talked about the NBA, they seem to kowtow to China. When businesses do put their foot down, American business in relation to China and say, “We’d love to do business with you, but we’re going to do business our way.” How do the Chinese typically respond, the government specifically?

Chris Fenton:

Well, that’s a fantastic question. We’re seeing it play out in real time. They’ve studied the art of war. They know to separate your enemy is a great way to create leverage. So if you have any sort of individual celebrity or individual C-suite executive or a company try to take on China, essentially they get banned from the market. And we’ve seen that from everyone from Burberry, to Adidas, to Nike at times, to Marriott, et cetera. But when a whole industry gets behind a movement or essentially a whole country or a multi-lateral approach occurs, they back off. And we also see a lot of huffing and puffing from them where they’re saying, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that when it comes to a certain red line,” but if we cross that red line, and Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan’s a perfect example of that, we’ve noticed that actually all of that was just bluff.

Now, of course, none of this stuff we want to see actually come through, but the fact of the matter is they are a bit like a teenager. If you let the teenager cross the red line of a curfew and there’s no repercussions for it, and you just allow it again, that curfew is just going to move back and back and back and back, but when you actually take a stand at that broken curfew, they will retreat. And we’ve seen it over and over again with the Chinese throughout history, they are one that actually is very good at beating the drum, beating their chest, making it seem like they carry a very large stick, but if you actually stand up to them and say, “No, this is wrong. We are not going to do what you’re asking us to do,” they do back off. And I think that’s something we really need to take to heart and realize the more that we can unify behind a particular point of leverage, the better it’s going to be as far as the result we want from them.

Beverly Hallberg:

And we’ve talked about China being an increased threat to the United States, under President Xi have you seen that threat grow? So in your time working in Beijing and also working with Chinese companies and the Chinese people, what have you seen as far as this current president in China and how much more of a threat he is to the American value system and really a threat to our way of life?

Chris Fenton:

Well, the threat to the American value system really comes with how we behave around China in order to get access to that market. So that involves a lot of the business lobby overall and the drive to create revenues and profits and capitalism. If we curb reckless capitalism and we actually put patriotism ahead of capitalism, not only will we support and strengthen the foundation of what makes our form of capitalism better, but we’ll also do it upholding the rules and regulations and the principles and values that we hold dearly. We haven’t been doing that. And we’ve been seeing things matriculate more and more into the Chinese point of view, as we try to get access.

Now, in terms of China spreading its wings and threatening the United States overall by their, essentially, global reach, I would say that a lot of what we’re seeing, whether it’s the Belt and Road Initiative, what we’re noticing in the Solomon Islands, what we’re seeing in Africa, what we’re seeing in Sri Lanka, a lot of that is pure self-interest, and the real difficult tasks that Xi has in order to make sure that they have enough of the resources that their people need in order to have all of what they need.

Remember, they’re water scarce, they’re energy scarce, they’re food scarce. These are all things that they have to branch out around the world in order to get access to, so I would say my belief is that all of that approach on a global basis isn’t this nefarious or pernicious one that’s trying to be an active aggression because they want to take over the world, I would actually argue it’s much more desperate and one of more self-interest, they just got to supply what their populist needs. Now, that said, in order to do that they are encroaching on a lot of sovereign rights out there and a lot of national security interests that we have to push back on.

Beverly Hallberg:

And final question for you, what has been the pushback against you? So you’re very outspoken on this issue, what type of threats, what type of response have you received from the Chinese government?

Chris Fenton:

Well, that’s a great question. It started off not great. In fact, I was trolled quite a bit and there were a lot of strange things that occurred when I first came out and was outspoken about this. I will tell you now, I actually have a decent dialogue with counterparts on the China side, and I think part of that is because everyone has started to pull towards this more hawkish view of China. Yet, even though I’m hawkish, I also believe that it’s in all of our best interests that we continue some sort of coupling and some sort of relations with the other superpower. Without that, we move into something that’s very dangerous. And I think they see people like myself, and I’m not the only one, I’m just a cog in the wheel talking about this, but I think they see maybe something in me being, say, a practical hawk.

I will say, the communication I’ve had, in fact, I even had a call from the China embassy as recently as Friday, I think they do see some necessary attributes in keeping me from getting too harsh on them. And by the way, they’re probably doing that with several thousands, if not more than that, other people talking about this US China relationship, which, as you know, is extremely complicated, it has lots of challenges. And the one thing I will say to your audience is that if we can unite over anything, it will be about us building our nation into something that’s stronger than it is today and more unified today because that is going to be the greatest challenge that China could ever face.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, there’s so much to talk about within this subject area of China. I encourage people to go out and get your book, which details this more. It’s called “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business.” Chris Fenton, author of that book and someone who has great insight and experience with this, thank you so much for joining us.

Chris Fenton:

Thanks for having me on. And anybody wants to follow me on Twitter, I’m @TheDragonFeeder. And thank you for what you do. You bring a great balanced approach to many different subjects that a lot of people need more engagement on.

Beverly Hallberg:

Well, thank you. And I’m guessing people won’t find you on TikTok then.

Chris Fenton:

No.

Beverly Hallberg:

Just Twitter?

Chris Fenton:

I do not like that app. Get it off your computer ASAP.

Beverly Hallberg:

I’m not on it either. I’m with you. And before all of you go, Independent Women’s Forum does want you to know that we rely on the generosity of supporters like you, an investment in IWF fuels our efforts to enhance freedom, opportunity and wellbeing for all Americans, so please consider making a small donation to IWF by visiting iwf.org/donate. That is iwf.org/donate. Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks, do leave us a rating or a review, it does help. And we’d love it if you shared this episode so your friends know where they can find more She Thinks. From all of us here at Independent Women’s Forum, thanks for watching.