The list of celebrities banned from entering China is not a short one. While most countries would probably feel flattered by a visit from Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or Harrison Ford, the People’s Republic is not one of them. So what does it take to get banned by China?
The answer is pretty straightforward. Speaking about human rights in China or Tibet is a sure-fire way to provoke backlash. But it goes farther than that: simply participating in the “wrong” movie can result in a life-long ban from the country. Not only are actors and musicians affected by China’s tight censorship, their movies and songs are banned alongside them.
So that’s in China, but what about in Hollywood? American film producers and record labels are afraid of censorship affecting their profits, so they work closely with Beijing to make sure their movies and music are Communist Party-approved. Lines are omitted. Scenes are deleted. Inconvenient details are photoshopped out. Plots are altered to eliminate any mention of Tibet or Tibetan characters. This censorship affects not only Chinese citizens, but film audiences around the world.
The problem is getting worse, not better. Under Xi Jinping, the authoritarian Communist Party chief and, as of 2018, China’s leader for the indefinite future, the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department has been empowered. Now in charge of tasks that used be the remit of the State Council, its mission statement is to “guide and monitor film production, distribution and screening work; organize the censorship of film content; guide and coordinate major film-related events of a national nature; [and] assume responsibility for overseas co-productions, and cooperation and discussion on film import and export.” In other words, censor domestic movies and pressure studios and producers abroad to create movies that glorify China and prevent sensitive topics like Tibet and Taiwan from ever making it to the silver screen.
The American screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange) said in a recent interview that “if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place, you risk alienating one billion people.” More to the point, you will certainly offend the people in the Propaganda Department in Beijing, and as a result, the one billion moviegoers of China will not be able to buy a ticket to see your movie. Given that Hollywood sells almost as many movie tickets in China as in the US, movie producers stand to lose a lot of money by offending China.
The surest way to get banned by China is to talk about human rights abuses in Tibet in front of a public audience. Just ask Harrison Ford and Richard Gere. Richard Gere might be the most detested actor in China, which has in turn put him on Hollywood’s blacklist. If you haven’t seen him in a movie in a while, there may be a reason why. For over 25 years, Richard Gere has worked to draw attention to the political injustice and human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet. After becoming interested in Tibetan issues in the early 1980s, he made his famous Oscar speech in 1993, calling for Deng Xiaoping to acknowledge Tibet’s independence. This speech marked a turning point in his career. Afterwards, he was denied roles and movies he filmed were never released. Gere said in an interview: “I recently had an episode where someone said they could not finance a film with me because it would upset the Chinese.”
Gere is also a long-term friend of the Dalai Lama and a co-founder of Tibet House US. In response to all the hostile backlash from China, Gere founded the International Campaign for Tibet and continues the fight for a free Tibet to this day.
Friendship with the Dalai Lama, or really any relation to him whatsoever, is a pretty reliable method for getting on China’s bad side. Harrison Ford has been banned from China since he testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee about human rights abuses in Tibet, a topic he had been interested in since meeting the Dalai Lama in 1992. Martin Scorsese’s ban from China is a result of him directing the movie Kundun, a Dalai Lama biopic written by Harrison Ford’s ex-wife Melissa Mathison. Lady Gaga has been banned since 2016, when she shared a picture of her meeting with the Dalai Lama on social media.
There are other ways to get on the Communist Party’s bad side as well. Katy Perry was denied entrance to the People’s Republic of China after she waved a Taiwanese flag during her performance in Taiwan and wore a sunflower dress that was seen as a symbol of solidarity with Taiwan’s anti-PRC Sunflower Student movement. Christian Bale, meanwhile, got into a physical altercation with Chinese police when he tried to visit jailed Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng.
The list of banned celebrities is growing, and it is hard to say who will be added next. Tibet is the no-go topic today; maybe tomorrow it will be Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Xinjiang. Unfortunately, it seems like American movie studios are only too happy to tailor their works to Beijing’s specifications. While viewers may not notice it immediately, the impact on public consciousness over the long term will be huge. If audiences in the US value democracy and human rights, they should be wary of granting a censor’s veto to a country that forbids free speech, censors the media, and deprives its own citizens of the most basic human rights.