Just what does it take to get a Hollywood film screened in communist China?
How has the Chinese regime subverted Hollywood into its propaganda apparatus?
And, why did a self-proclaimed globalist who managed to get Iron Man 3 screened in Beijing’s Forbidden City have a change of heart, and realized he was “pandering” to China’s Communist Party?
In this episode, we sit down with film producer and media executive Chris Fenton, who has worked on blockbuster films like Iron Man 3, Point Break, and Looper. He’s the author of the book Feeding the Dragon.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Chris Fenton, such a pleasure to have you on American thought leaders.
Chris Fenton: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.
Mr. Jekielek: You have been in the belly of the beast; you’ve been in Hollywood, and part of your job has been to get Hollywood movies into communist China. You actually got Iron Man 3 premiered in the Forbidden City, which is the first of that sort of thing ever happening, remarkable. You also have had some introspection around your role, and how this whole thing worked. It’s an amazing story. You write about it in Feeding the Dragon, your book. Let’s talk about this getting Iron Man 3 premiered in the Forbidden City and what did it take to actually make that happen?
Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s a very colorful journey over a couple years of being involved with Marvel, Disney, and all the filmmakers involved with that film. It started around late in 2011. We released the movie in April of 2013. The process of getting it into China, the process of getting the approval to do the premiere in the Forbidden City obviously took a village; it wasn’t just me involved. There were a lot of Chinese faces involved in that process. We had a very large infrastructure in Beijing.
Where I came into play was as the conduit between the two countries. There were a lot of directives that were given by the Chinese government to our company, and then it was the company that would then translate them to me. Then I would have to find a way to make it tolerable to our partners here in the United States. [This is] in regards to the kinds of things we needed to supply and the kind of efforts we needed to give in order to get government approval for Iron Man 3, both as a form of content to release there, but then also as … a product or service that we were marketing to their people.
We talked about it a little bit yesterday. In regards to China, there’s two entities you have to sell to there. Number one, you need to sell your product or service to the Chinese government. You need to portray it in a way that the Chinese government feels that it benefits them and their populace to allow you access to their market. Then you’re allowed to sell that product and service to their consumer; you’re allowed access to that massive market. In between that is the narrative that needs to be approved. How are you going to market your product or service to that consumer? How are they going to digest what you’re saying to them? How does the government look at the way that you’re approaching the marketing and promotion of that product and service in regards to their overall agenda?
That brings us back to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the center of Beijing, and the center of China is Beijing. In fact, I like to say that China is the same size as the continental United States from one side on the east to the west, yet there’s one timezone in China. That timezone is whatever time it is in Beijing, and the center of Beijing is the Forbidden City. So when we really wanted to portray the importance of collaboration between the US and China in making this massive tentpole movie, the best way to showcase that we felt was in the most revered part of China and to showcase it with the star of that movie, who was Robert Downey Jr, who we brought over.
We did the first-ever full-blown premier spectacle, that not only was a premiere in the realm of what we typically think of in Hollywood, but we also broadcast it nationally across the country. The idea was to say, hey, US-China collaboration was done on this film. It should be supported by the Chinese government. The Chinese consumer should consume it, because you’re just as much a part of this movie as the United States was. That was the first.
Mr. Jekielek: This is interesting, because … by doing this premiere, they’re basically saying the Chinese Communist Party is fully behind this film. That’s the message, and of course, for you guys at the time, that was a great marketing message, right?
Mr. Fenton: Correct. And not only that, when it’s obvious that the Chinese government is behind something that’s foreign, suddenly you see a lot of other wind at your back. For instance, our offices were … were inside the second and third Ring Road in Beijing. And we were close to a mall called U-town. Inside U-town, there was a pirated Marvel store where Marvel merchandise was sold without any of that monetization being shared by Marvel headquarters back in the United States.
But when we started marketing and showcasing the fact that Iron Man 3 was coming, and when the populace started to realize that the government was behind us in supporting that endeavor, suddenly that pirated store disappeared, just disappeared. When you went to the silk market or some of the pirated stores, [previously] you could buy some really interesting looking Marvel paraphernalia that was slightly off, but you could still find an Iron Man figurine or a different t-shirt or whatever. All of those disappeared too, because the populace knew that the government was supporting this foreign IP, this intellectual property, and you didn’t want to get caught selling something that was supported by the government now.
Mr. Jekielek: Interesting. This is about as validated as you could be by the Chinese Communist Party, and probably a lot of our viewers are wondering why the heck you’re sitting across from me right now. You were a full-on believing globalist, so to speak, … but then something changed along the way, right? I don’t want to forget to talk about how you actually got through the censorship regime. Let’s, let’s make sure we mention that. But how did your thinking shift?
Mr. Fenton: It was really after a congressional delegation trip, which I co-hosted with the US Asia Institute, which by the way, I’m not speaking on behalf of here, but it’s a fantastic organization. We had just gotten back in early September from taking three congressional members over to China. We met with Carrie Lam and the protesters in Hong Kong, and we also went up to Beijing, Xi’an, and Chengdu.
During that process, I was also writing the book. I decided to finish the book with an afterword that brought most of the story [to a close]. It ends in mid-2013 with Iron Man three opening and breaking every record, bringing it into the current day and the smell of pepper spray and, you know, sort of my thoughts on where the U.S.-China relationship was. And I was about to turn in that book.
Then in October, Daryl Morey the Houston Rockets General Manager tweeted out his support for Hong Kong protesters. I saw that [when] I was standing next to another soccer dad on the side of a field watching my son play. I said, “Wow, that’s gonna be a really interesting dilemma or problem for the NBA in China.” He said, “Well, why is that?” And I said, “Well, because Yao Ming really made the Houston Rockets the branded team in China, and I can guarantee you the CCP has noticed this tweet.” I was right, but what I didn’t know, and what I’d never even thought of through that moment and 20 years prior, was the fact that it woke up the majority of Americans to what was going on between the US and China when it came to the capitalistic endeavors that we were pursuing: this pandering to the CCP in order to get access to that super lucrative market.
That was the moment where I looked at it and looked at the book, and I said, Oh, my gosh. I was part of the problem that now everybody’s aware of. I need to relook at what I wrote, and figure out how to implement certain thoughts throughout the book that make it more timely and more self-aware of what actually happened. That’s why I’m sitting here today. There’s a lot to talk about on that subject matter, but you asked the question.
Mr. Jekielek: … So let’s let’s talk about the pandering, and clearly, there was quite a bit of pandering that would be required to get through the censors and to make it so that the Chinese Communist Party is not just accepting, but kind of thrilled with the message that a film’s gonna have, right? Especially, to be validated at the top and the Forbidden City.
Mr. Fenton: … When you’re looking at the movie business itself, there’s different sorts of ways that we can look at pandering. For instance, there’s the premeditated self-censorship. You want the movie to play in the two largest markets in the world and make money, and that’s the United States and China. So you obviously want to make a movie that’s going to play to both of those markets. Part of that might entail maybe not making a movie about China winning a huge soccer game in the Olympics against the Americans, and hoping that that movie plays in America. Well, it’s the same reason why you might avoid having Chinese villains in a movie that you want to have work in China.
So there’s the premeditated thought of “Well, in this script, is this going to make it a better movie for both of those markets?” Quite frankly, if you get it to work in both of those markets, it will work in every other market. It’s the toughest Venn diagram to find that concentric circle with, but if you make it work, it’s magical around the world. So premeditated censorship is one, and that’s one where I think it’s going to be very difficult to mitigate, because people are always thinking about that, in fact, you want it to work in Germany too. So you’re going to think about things that aren’t going to be insulting to that consumer and in Argentina and elsewhere.
That’s one aspect of it, but another aspect involves the post-production aspect of censoring content that suddenly does offend the CCP, and they tell you, “You need to change it.” The most current example of that has been what Senator Ted Cruz has brought to light, which is this Top Gun movie that’s coming out shortly where Tom Cruise is wearing a flight jacket, and it happens to have the Taiwanese flag on the back of it. Paramount Studios, wanting the movie to work in China, has removed it.
But on top of that, like we saw with the NBA and the Daryl Morey tweet, the CCP censorship is not just about their own market; it’s about how they’re portrayed around the world. So when Daryl Morey said something off of their soil. By the way, he was probably in Houston, Texas when he tweeted that out. The CCP … not only said, “Hey, we have a problem with that,” but they also said, “We have such a big problem with that, that we’re going to ban not just the Houston Rockets from being shown in our market, we’re going to ban the whole NBA.”
You look at that, and you go: well wait a minute, that’s censorship beyond borders, right? He said that not while he was on their soil and not on a Chinese platform. He said it on Twitter in a country that actually has freedom of speech. The same principle can be looked at with the cross border censorship with Top Gun. Paramount didn’t just remove the flag from what’s going to be seen in China, they removed it from the jacket that’s going to be shown around the world. So China, the CCP, is actually exerting their influence with soft power beyond their borders, and telling our companies what they can and can’t show to the rest of the world.
Mr. Jekielek: Give me an example with this film specifically, if you can, some of the things you needed to do.
Mr. Fenton: You’re talking about Iron Man 3?
Mr. Jekielek: Sure.
Mr. Fenton: Well, what was great about telling the story about Iron Man 3 is that the filmmakers at Marvel actually behaved and handled situations in the way that I think a lot of company heads should, moving forward. They never were looking at: “How do we change this movie in order to make more money in China?” It was always about: “If we do this, does it make the movie better? Does it protect the brand? Will make our fans who have built this brand over 50-60 years happy with how it’s implemented? And will it allow the rest of the world to feel good that this movie’s the best quality movie that can be made?”
Kevin Feige was the one running Marvel; he still does. He’s a tremendous filmmaker, but he never said, when we would give them an idea “Well, how much more money is that gonna make us in China?” Whereas unfortunately, … the management of a lot of other companies and other industries actually do ask that question.
To answer [your] question, there were many [examples] in the book. I actually get into a bunch of different debates we had with Marvel about things that we wanted to implement into the movie. One of the things that China was extremely strict on us about was, “If you’re going to have access to this market and … promote this movie far beyond most movies, you need to shoot the movie here.” Not all of it, but parts of it. You need to have what they call first unit people over, which means having Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr., and our director over there, and showcasing the movie by shooting it so many days in that market and having a certain amount of the movie take place in China in the final cut.
Unfortunately, what happened, and I don’t want to give too much away, but Robert Downey Jr. got hurt in that production, so we lost a lot of potential shooting days that we could have done in China. So we ended up shooting just second unit material in the market. We did certain things with the CCPs guidance to try to showcase the amount of moviemaking we were doing in that market, and the amount of people that we were hiring with those second unit shots that were Chinese, and the amount of skill set and exchange that we are doing to help them build their own film industry right?
Because remember that the CCP is about: how do we govern 1.4 billion people and keep them just happy enough that they don’t revolt, right? You can’t make them all happy. There’s not enough resources on Earth. So how do you keep them just happy enough that they don’t revolt? Part of that is giving them all of what they need and some of what they want.
But another big part of that is also building their middle class. How do you build their middle class? Well, you create industries that hire skilled labor, and the film industry is one of them. So every time we did a movie that we wanted to monetize that market with, we would have to find ways to bring in Chinese below the line crews and above the line talent into the process, not only so that they could be showcased in the movies themselves, but also so that they could learn the filmmaking process and learn the talents … and the skill set that Hollywood has essentially honed over the last hundred years.
For the government, to see us do that type of exchange [was very important]. They knew they had an argument within themselves and also one they could give to the populace of, “Hey, we’re supporting this movie, because China was involved in making it. And China is getting better at building the film industry into a world-class film industry, which is going to create middle-class jobs for you, because of efforts like this. So that’s why we’re supporting this movie.”
Mr. Jekielek: How important is Hollywood, Hollywood films, or Hollywood involvement in China in the Chinese Communist Party soft power operation?
Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s one of the devices for sure. The beauty of filmmaking and the storytelling that’s involved is that you can implement interesting messaging that’s completely disguised by a fun entertaining story.
So when you look at even a Johnny Depp movie that we did [you see this]. I was trying to think of an interesting film that we had done where you implement certain things that fall in line with the CCP directive. The opening of that film, Transcendence, … which was not a successful film at all but did pretty well in China, involved Johnny Depp as a professor who’s working on nanotechnology. He doesn’t want to be spied on, so he puts himself in this strange hut that has wide copper wires around it. In that hut, his compass doesn’t work, can’t find the north or the south. There’s a comment in there about how Europe created the compass and whatever; it was 1600 or something.
I remembered from my engineering degree that there was something about the compass that had to do with China. So I did some research, and I found out actually, there’s this guy Shen Kuo who created some apparatus that could figure out the polls in something like 1000 AD, way before the West ever came across. So we actually found one of his original books, and we put it in the opening scene of Transcendence. We actually had to go to the archives at USC library to find it. But we put it in there in the props, so that we could showcase the fact that China was a part of some of the early scientific discoveries of the world.
Point Break is another one right where we did a remake. There was a scene in that movie where we were going to open up the film with a cold open, which is always that high action three minutes that gets you right into that movie, and it was going to take place in Shanghai. It was going to take place in a building way up on the top floor of one of those massive buildings in the Pudong district.
It was a … diamond showcase center, and these motorcycles were driving through. They got on the elevator, and they started taking all the diamonds. Then they drove out of the building up on the hundredth floor. They had parachutes and they were supposed to take the diamonds with them. Because they’re sort of Robin Hood characters, they were going to spread the diamonds all over the city from the air. Then all the Chinese were supposed to pick up the diamonds, because the Robin Hood effort won over the rich diamond dealers or whatever. But the Chinese government said, “You can’t do that.”
Mr. Jekielek: I was thinking so. I’m sure that one didn’t go over very well.
Mr. Fenton: They said, “Well, number one, our police would have caught them. And number two, the Chinese people would not pick up diamonds that weren’t theirs. So this does not make sense.” Right? So it’s interesting when you’re thinking about plot points on how you need to create either windier back or avoid the obstacles ahead. And now Hollywood is super … cognizant of that fact. It’s partially good business, but it’s also partially not American values and interest that we should be protecting as a nation.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the most outrageous thing that you can think of that censors demanded of you in your film facilitating career?
Mr. Fenton: Well, we did a movie with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt called Looper, which is another story I tell in the book. What was interesting about that is that the movie takes place, both in the present day, maybe five or ten years in the future, and then forty years beyond that. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is a young actor, plays the present-day version of a character that Bruce Willis plays forty years in the future. In the original script, the current day took place in the middle of America, and then in the future, it was going to take place in France, because that character, when he retired from his gangster career, was going to move to France.
We ultimately decided let’s move him to China in the future. But what’s interesting about China is that the CCP does not like time travel. In fact, it’s banned from showcasing in movies or in various storytelling, especially from the West. Part of that is that they want to control the narrative of where the future is going. Then [the other part is that for] anything historical, they want to control the way the history is told.
So what we did in order to [set the movie in China was] say to China, “Hey, we think this movie could make money from your consumer. We think your consumer likes these kinds of movies. It does have the future involved, which we know is a censored item, so what we want to do is work with you to figure out what you want your future to look like, and we’ll put it in the movie.” So we worked with the Shanghai municipal government, which is where the China locations took place.
We said, “What do you want your skyline to look like 40 years in the future?” And we created all kinds of different designs. They would pick some, and then they come up with some others or they’d have plans for ones they wanted to build or whatever. Then we would work with the CGI post-production people and design those buildings, so that when we actually shot the film, we created the skyline that the Shanghai government wanted there in 40 years.
That allowed the CCP to go “Well, wait a minute, even though this takes place in the future, which we don’t like from Hollywood, and it actually has criminal elements, and there was drug use and other stuff that’s censored, they’re also showcasing the fact that in the future, this Joseph Gordon-Levitt character who becomes Bruce Willis wanted to go there versus anywhere else in the world, because that’s the best place to live.” And then on top of it, the movie created the backdrop of what we envision Shanghai to be [like as] the center of the world, the most beautiful, sophisticated, technologically advanced city on Earth. That’s what the movie is showcasing. So why wouldn’t we let this in? Why wouldn’t we want the public to see it here in China? By the way, we want the rest of the world to see it too. And the rest of the world did. It made a lot of money; it was a very successful film.
Mr. Jekielek: Frankly, it never occurred to me that this was a very subversive piece of Chinese Communist Party propaganda. I’ve seen it.
Mr. Fenton: Oh, you saw Looper?
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah, absolutely.
Mr. Fenton: It’s a good little movie.
Mr. Jekielek: I remember that it didn’t end up in France. I remember it in China. That part didn’t occur to me, but I bet the China element really occurred to a lot of the people in the Chinese market that were watching it.
Mr. Fenton: They loved it. They loved it. And I’ll tell you right now, the person in Indiana or the person in Brazil or the person in Germany didn’t even notice the fact that there was a little bit of soft power that they digested from the CCP in that movie, because the movie was entertaining and engaged them. That’s the brilliance of moviemaking in regards to the ability for soft power to seep into any market. That’s also a reason why I feel like it’s important for us to keep this exchange going between the U.S. and China, because we can use it to our advantage too.
Mr. Jekielek: So Chris, as we’re sitting here, it’s almost like you have some kind of mixed feelings here about the Hollywood relationship with China. … In an article that you published recently, “A Hollywood Ending for the Coming U.S.-China Divorce,” you are advocating for a divorce. Tell me why.
Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s a complicated answer, so let me try to be concise with it. … Definitely the rampant globalism which I was a part of for 15 years compromised a lot of American interests, and it had repercussions down the road that none of us involved with saw coming. So one of the things that I’m trying to bring to light is the fact that we did a lot of stuff to pander to get into that market.
We did a lot of things that were much more beneficial to the Chinese than they were to Americans to get access to that market. We were very beholden to investors and shareholders that were pressuring us to get that market open as much as possible to our goods and services. And we were successful at it, but the long term ramifications for America were not great.
We cut to today where the Trump administration has definitely brought to light the fact that we have an unbalanced relationship with China, and it needs to change. I feel like the effort that he’s brought forward to make us all aware of it is fantastic. There’s been a lot of mistakes made along the way by various parts of our leadership, where we haven’t been quite as effective at changing it, but that’s okay as long as we’re aware that there is an issue.
That brings me to why I think a divorce should happen. Part of [it is that it is] in the best interests of America in the long term. But it also looks at the marriage between the US and China and asks, “Why did we ever do it to begin with?” Now I get the fact that we all believed in this mission and purpose of free-market capitalism, and rampant globalism was in the best interest of America. But we now know it wasn’t. So what were the other reasons we had for bringing the two countries together in these nuptials?
Part of it was the idea that we were going to bring them to become more like us. I talked about this in the book; I call it “Fenton’s Five Forces,” which is an homage to Porter’s Five Forces of Business. Those are the forces of diplomacy that keep our two countries working together and in communication. I compare it to a cell phone and a cell tower, right? There’s five bars that you want to have to have perfect communication: national security, politics, human rights issues, commerce, and culture. The idea I think that globalists originally had for this push of us entering into China at all costs was that we could win them over on all those five forces. But the fact of the matter is on human rights, politics, and national security, it’s looking more and more like that’s never gonna happen.
I’m not gonna say that it won’t happen. I’m just saying, as a practical realist, let’s pretend like they’re never going to happen at least anytime in the future. So let’s [US and China] agree to disagree on those three. That leaves us two bars left in the cell phone tower to sell cell phone connection. That’s, I think, enough to feel comfortable that you have a relationship that’s working. But if one of those drops, and we’re just down to commerce, or we’re just down to culture, then you’re down to one bar, and you’re very close to what I think would be the beginning of another cold war.
And to me, cold war’s is not what some people are saying today’s relationship with China is; to me, it’s no trade, no communication, like we had between 1950 and 1971. So my thought in that op-ed that I wrote recently was that we should just admit that we’re not going to agree on those three principles, which leaves us two left, which is only 40% of the five. That should be enough to say, “Let’s get a divorce.” You know, like any divorce, there might be all kinds of intertwined issues like kids, for instance.
Let’s figure out how to do the divorce amicably. Let’s figure out how to have that aim, a call to divorce, and create some new version of a relationship that’s more balanced, that’s based on the two things that we can find in that concentric circle in the Venn diagram: culture and commerce. But that culture and commerce also has to be reset. Because as Donald Trump, the administration, and various others have said, we have a trade imbalance issue where accounting procedures that are done by the Chinese are not the same as US companies.
[There are] certain protectionist policies and tariffs that the Chinese have over us that we don’t have. There’s a certain status that they have as a developing nation under the WTO versus a developed nation like we are. We need to change those. Even with Hollywood and … also things like the NBA, let’s figure out what is the proper way that they’re allowed to censor things and censor our speech without repercussions beyond where their jurisdiction is.
I would argue with Hollywood, they can censor things for their [own] market. That’s okay. Why? Because we’re okay with it with Japan. We’re okay with it with Korea, and we’re okay with it with the Middle East and other markets. So in the effort of finding compromise, let’s let them do that. But they can’t dare go beyond their borders and tell us what we can or cannot have in those movies for the rest of the world.
In order to do that, the nation has to get behind the studios in the film, the makers that are in charge of those decisions and say, we have your back. If they retaliate, because Germany can see that Taiwanese flag, then we’re going to come down on them with the force of this nation with whatever the leverage point is that we think is there.
[With] the NBA, the same thing. I mean, there was a big cry for LeBron James and the rest of the NBA to come out and support Hong Kong. But the fact was, there was no national effort to support what repercussions that would have against the NBA. So if the NBA did that, or LeBron James who has 20 million a year, whatever it is, coming out of China every year, stood up for those Hong Kong protesters, and then lost all that endorsement, money, all that potential income, he would have just been a sacrificial lamb.
We need to say, “Hey, LeBron, we’re going to back you as a country, and we’re going to make a statement on your behalf and on the behalf of all people in the United States.” That way you’re protected in your free speech right to be able to say what you want to say about it. But that didn’t happen. It’s a very difficult situation, because you want to say “LeBron, say something. Stand up for Hong Kong.” But … it’s easy for Senator Marco Rubio to tell him to do that. Marco Rubio doesn’t have $50 million a year in endorsement money coming out of China. He can say all he wants; LeBron has to make the sacrifice. If he has to make the sacrifice, maybe as a nation, we back him so that we all create the leverage to make sure that he says what we all want him to say, but he doesn’t feel the wrath when none of us else do.
Mr. Jekielek: Right at the beginning of your book, it’s very stark. You actually started with … plate or a very short line, almost like a dedication self-reflection. I thought that was fascinating.
Mr. Fenton: Well, there were times where the movie business is a very high profile endeavor. That particular movie, because it was so big and involved big stars and involved the two superpowers, was on the cover of New York Times and Wall Street Journal and all the different big publications around the world. There were times… in fact I cite one in the book, where I was called out for being a Benedict Arnold. I went to panels where I would talk, and people would come up behind me and say, you’re a shill for China.
… You know, to me, I felt like I was a true patriot of the United States during that time. Why? Because we were opening a market; we were making money where money wasn’t makeable at any other point in time. Part of that money, not enough of it, but part of it was coming back to the United States. So we were increasing the GDP of the US in whatever small part. That also was allowing us to finance more production days and various other components of the movies, which created more jobs. So increased GDP, increased GDPR, and increased jobs for the US made sense to me as far as a mission and a purpose.
On top of that, I also felt like everything that we got into that market in a stronger way that could penetrate more of their consumers was getting more of the soft power message of the West into the east. So I felt good about that, too. So when people said you’re a shill or you’re a Benedict Arnold or whatever it was, I always brushed it off, because [I was thinking] “You don’t understand what we’re actually getting done. … I’m not going to listen to you.”
When the Daryl Morey tweet came out, I started to self reflect on it. And I start to see where we are today with the supply chain issues with the fact that we’ve shipped a lot of our middle-class jobs overseas, the pandering, the censorship, and the certain things that we do that are part of the CCP initiative that aren’t in the best interests of Americans. I started to realize I was complicit in dealing with those people, as those critics were saying I was doing.
Now I’m thinking differently about it and thinking: how do I approach this? How do I get to an audience enough where I say, hey, look, none of us were bad people. We were driven by a mission and purpose that was fed to us by lots of leadership around the world, this globalist free-market capitalism idea, and we were just trying to get the job done. We felt like we had a purpose and mission that was right. But now it’s not. We realize it’s not. There’s a lot of benefits to a very strategically reset version of what we are doing. I want to make sure that that’s out there.
I don’t think we want to go to war with China. I know we don’t want to start a cold war with China. But we need to reevaluate how we’re doing it [interacting with them], and we need to do it as a country together. This is not a red or blue issue. This is [for] red, blue, purple, and everybody in between. We need to get our thinking caps on, get smart about this, and figure out how we’re going to tackle it. Otherwise, like you’re saying, we’re just going to keep kowtowing into the CCP, giving them what they want on behalf of shareholders and investors that just simply want to make as much money out of that market as possible.
Mr. Jekielek: … You have a very good perspective on the power of the Chinese Communist Party propaganda apparatus. You kind of described it to me, and I’m wondering if you could kind of elaborate on that and how ubiquitous it is? You had a really very interesting way of putting it, and I’m wondering if you could expand on that a little bit for our audience.
Mr. Fenton: Okay, so just in regards to the structure of it, obviously you have Xi Jinping, who runs the country, but he’s got six other standing committee members, so there’s seven members of the Standing Committee [on top of the CCP]. Then you have the rest of the Politburo and the rest of the Communist Party. Then you have the National People’s Congress, which is sort of the rubber stamp side of things.
Under the Communist Party is an organization called the Ministry of Propaganda or the Propaganda Ministry or various versions of that name. They dictate the messaging that goes out to their populace. That messaging is carried by everybody in government. They all carry the party line. In fact, when I cohost congressional delegation trips to China, we hit all the different entities of government and then we hit some of the private sectors, the SOEs, and various other entities. They all almost say the exact same thing in every room. It’s unbelievable.
To me, that is why I believe those bars that we talked about earlier: national security, politics and human rights [are lost causes]. There are issues there that are part of the party line that are disseminated across the whole populace. Yes, there are sectors of the populace that have the financial wherewithal or the resources to be able to get news from outside of the country, and there’s the VPNs and getting beyond the firewalls, but the majority of the people there hear that one party line, and they believe in it.
So when we’re saying: oh, well, you know what, eventually they’re going to want to overthrow their government; eventually they’re going to get behind human rights the way we are; they’re gonna say the South China Sea is not China’s to have. We’re gonna win them over as long as we keep pushing that narrative. Well, they’re not really hearing that narrative. They’re hearing the narrative from the Ministry of Propaganda.
[Let’s] liken it to the United States, which we’ve talked about before. I look at how steadfast people are on the red or the blue side of things. It’s very bifurcated, and it’s because each side is getting one party line. That’s following one real narrative. No matter how much the liberal side thinks Donald Trump is doing stuff wrong and wants his supporters to believe the same thing, his supporters believe he’s doing everything right. And those supporters think that the left is doing everything wrong.
That’s because you have CNN, MSNBC, Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, and everybody else touting one [line]. Then on the other side, you have Fox, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Tucker Carlson talking about another narrative. And by the way, we’ve talked about it before, there’s some people [who] are pigeonholed in both sides that are actually much more in the middle then a lot of people believe, but everybody’s got their blinders on.
Imagine if you had all that narrative in the United States put together in one party line. Then suddenly all those steadfast supporters that were following that are suddenly following the same [view], and then everybody’s in line. That’s what’s happening in China. The Chinese people, the populace, believe that the government is doing everything well. If they didn’t, we would see another Tiananmen Square uprising.
The CCP knows that, and they’re super smart, super-intelligent about the way that they decipher intelligence. We know mutual friends like Steve Bannon who are calling it an information war; part of the unrestricted warfare PLA [People’s Liberation Army] directive, right? They’re very good at information, and they’re very good at propaganda. We’re seeing that not only inside of their country, but we’re also seeing it outside.
Mr. Jekielek: … This whole Coronavirus situation is a good window on this, but all the time, there’s people who are patriotic whistleblowers, so to speak, right? Because the Chinese Communist Party is involved in all sorts of malfeasance and so forth. In this case, you had these ten doctors who we’re all familiar with who early on said, “There’s a big problem that’s happening.” Even though it was very quickly censored and kept from a lot of people, still there were some significant number of people that learned that there was something different than the Communist Party propaganda said at the time.
This is something that’s constantly happening there at the same time. There’s also I think it’s something over 300 million people who have actually quit the Communist Party as part of the Quit the Communist Party Movement, so to speak.. … There is a consciousness in China that this may not be the system that everybody wants for the future.
Mr. Fenton: Well, there’s definitely dissent, [for sure.] … There’s 1.4 billion people there. Let’s say 200 million wants something different. But who wants something different enough to go up against the iron fist of the CCP right now? You’re going to need strength in numbers; you’re going to need the leverage of a large part of that population to want to do that. The CCP understands that and knows that well, and their directive when it comes to messaging and narrative is so powerful that they know that they can flip a switch.
… In a worst-case scenario where they can’t flip the switch that’s a little more peaceful or subtle, they go national. They go nationalistic. I was there in 2012 when there were issues. We talked about the truck going through Forbidden City and killing people; there were the bus station stabbings, etc. There were a lot of things that were starting to boil up and show “Whoa, we might be heading towards another June 4th, 1989.”
Instead of trying to figure out a way to calm the masses through, I don’t know, an achievement, like, “Oh, we just brought another hundred million people into the middle class,” they decided to instead send some ships over to the rocky islands that are disputed between Japan and China, and start to lay claim on those and create this rally around the flag narrative with Japan. Before you knew it, everybody forgot about their discontent. China and started throwing Molotov cocktails outside of the embassy for Japan. You saw Toyota’s and Nissan’s overturned in Shanghai streets. There’s a great sort of rally around the flag opportunity there that they always know they can do.
Even in this COVID crisis, where, let’s face it, there were a lot of wrong moves made by the CCP in regards to curbing what the problem was that they had. But the rest of the world has a lot of issues with COVID, too, and the rest of the world is creating some nice opportunities [for the CCP] to create a narrative around that deflects their [own] deficiencies, and makes it seem like somebody else’s problem.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final words before we finish up?
Mr. Fenton: … Well, first of all, it’s been an honor to be on the show. I’m a fan and enjoy many of these interviews. It’s interesting. For me, it’s about really trying to talk about this with as many points of view as possible, because I know I have a very strong applied practical experience between the two countries. I know I had a mission and purpose that I believed in at one point that now I think was detrimental to the country. But I’m still very, very adamant that we avoid a cold war between the two.
So my feeling as I’m entering the lecture circuit is how to best get people on board with the fact that we don’t want a cold war. We want to continue some sort of exchange that benefits America. Yet we need to do it without compromising our interests. If we do that, I honestly believe in the long run, it’s going to be very good for Americans and also for the world. But I can’t do this myself. No one can do it by themselves, and no one political party can do it by themselves. We actually all have to get together and decide this is what we want to do, and we have to put the leverage of the nation behind it, because when the country does get behind something, we can get anything done that we want.
… I talked about how I don’t think we’re going to win them over on those three [national security, politics, and human rights issues]. But if we win over or reset in the way that we are culturally and commercially, that benefits Americans way better than it has. [If] we get that accomplished, it’s like a baby step approach, right? Like China’s.
One of the big issues that companies have when they enter that market is they see the world is their oyster, and they can grow and grow and grow, and “Oh my gosh, think of how great this can be,” but they can never execute the very first thing that needs to get done to get to the next one, to get to the next one. Perhaps if we look at a baby step approach where we say: okay, let’s divorce. Let’s forget about those three right now. Let’s continue on the commercial and cultural exchange, but let’s do it in a smart, strategic way that benefits America and protects what’s happening to us.
If we can get that done, then let’s focus on the big prize. Because I think that will help us show that we can make achievements there. Then on top of it, that achievement is also going to back us in getting there too. Maybe that’s the goal that we need to set, but just have that baby step or that one step in between.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to ask you another question before we finish up, because I have to. You’re familiar with what’s typically called the organ harvesting industry in China. I’m sure if you’ve watched some American Thought Leaders interviews, we’ve talked about that a number of times. How can you have a commercial relationship? I asked myself this question because there’s some things that you’re saying that make a heck of a lot of sense to me. We need to be able to communicate. I agree with you. However, how can you have a commercial relationship with a nation where the state sanctions murder for organs in a multi-billion dollar industry.
Mr. Fenton: You had a guest on recently, Arthur Waldron, who compared it to going into a store that you go to every day to go buy your groceries, and then one day you find out that they have all these harvested organs in the back, and they have this whole other market that’s going on in the back. Do you keep going to that front market, knowing that the back markets there? And what does that say about you? It was a great metaphor.
It is something that falls under perhaps the human rights aspect or even more severe than that. I mean, the organ harvesting scenario is terrible. But for some reason, we’ve been able to live with it with other countries too. I mean, Saudi Arabia, for one, and the way we are okay with doing business with them versus their human rights issues.
It’s a moral and philosophical question that we need to ask ourselves as a country. We need to realize that the almighty dollar seems to be driving us in regards to how we make these decisions. And we need to decide whether we want to change that. I think more importantly, we need to try to make it consistent around the world, not just with one market versus another. To answer your question, I don’t know how we handle that. Psychologically, we do. So what does that say about us? I don’t know. But I’d like to believe that we all want to try to fix that.
I think that starts with how we approach baby steps to getting there and putting the leverage of the nation behind us, rather than just having different fractions of us shout out causes and hope that sacrificial lambs keep sacrificing themselves. Because we know we as a nation, if we want to pursue something together, we can definitely affect change. But that was a difficult question.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. So let’s let’s finish up on this note. You mentioned earlier that this isn’t a red or a blue issue for America. … Just looking at the face of it, it looks like much more of a red Republican issue. But there is this blue dog coalition that’s interested in looking into how the Chinese Communist Party is accountable for Coronavirus. You’re working with Congress. What are you doing to facilitate this kind of becoming much more of a red and blue issue?
Mr. Fenton: Well, number one is I want to meet the democrats and like we talked about where I’m non-partisan in this issue. I would really like to see the Democrats take this issue to heart and start making it a priority. If you look at some of the most important principles that the Democratic Party has supported, from middle class and labor rights and issues to human rights to censorship and the freedom of creative expression and all that stuff that China obviously does not see eye to eye with us on, the Democrats should be fully into this.
So one of the things I’m doing, whether as a speaker on the lecture circuit or in promoting the book or being a voice in this is trying to get on as many platforms that cater to the blue audience as the red, because we need to get together as a collective to combat this issue and to tackle this challenge, because quite frankly, the China issues that affect us as a country are really not bordered by red or blue politics.
… We talked about how opening that market to products and services has really benefited shareholders and investors. But unfortunately, a lot of this country is not benefiting from that windfall. They might be benefiting from cheaper goods at a Walmart. But they’re also really not benefiting from the fact that factories have moved out of their town and middle-class jobs have moved out or maybe even the IP [intellectual property] that they created in their basement is now being used without any monetization over in China.
So we need to address this from the democratic side. I’m trying to get the voice out, whether it’s in front of large crowds or whether it’s on TV or in podcasts or radio. I know you have red and blue that listen to this and watch this program. Hopefully, they spread the word too, but it’s an important issue for all Americans.
Mr. Jekielek: Such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Fenton: Such an honor. Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.