The Chinese Communist Party regime has always been censorious. Its so-called ‘Great Firewall’ means that Facebook, Twitter and Google are blocked in China, many are films banned and even Winnie the Pooh was persona non grata after netizens spotted his resemblance to Xi Jinping. In the Chinese version of Bohemian Rhapsody, references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality – an important part of his story – are purged. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was banned completely, for its references to ghosts and cannibalism, as was Nomadland, due to comments by its Chinese-born director Chloe Zhao, who described China as ‘a place where there are lies everywhere’.
But now, Beijing is going even further, and directly changing a film’s plot. It was revealed this week that the Chinese streaming platform Tencent Video has altered the ending of David Fincher’s 1999 classic Fight Club so the film finishes with a propaganda victory for the Chinese regime. No longer does the regime just block, ban or cut scenes it does not like – it is now giving western films a new twist to turn the state into the heroes of the story.
Fight Club traditionally ends with Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, being killed off by the narrator, Edward Norton, as skyscrapers explode in the background. The narrator has realised that Durden is his imaginary alter-ego. The anarchist and anti-capitalist film ends with an attempt to bring down modern civilisation.
But in the Chinese Communist Party’s new version, the exploding buildings are replaced with a black screen and the words: ‘The police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding.’ Durden, it is added, was sent to a lunatic asylum, and later discharged.
In other words, the anarchistic ending of the original film was too much for the regime in Beijing – which prizes, above all, control, ‘stability’ and all-encompassing state power. So they changed the script, giving the film a happy ending instead.
What does this say about the regime’s relationship with Hollywood?
For some years China has tightened its grip on Hollywood, by financing films, purchasing cinemas and dangling the dollar signs of its tantalisingly large market in front of producers’ eyes. That has led to the sidelining of Richard Gere, once one of Hollywood’s biggest draws, because of his friendship with the Dalai Lama, and the outrageous decision by Disney to film Mulan in Xinjiang, despite the unfolding genocide in the region. Mulan’s star Crystal Liu Yifei was quick to declare her support for Beijing’s brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, declaring on Weibo, China’s social media: ‘I also support Hong Kong police.’
Copyright has never bothered Beijing, nor have intellectual property rights. But it shows a particular combination of both confidence and insecurity that the regime is now changing – rather than editing out – a film’s final scene. Beijing knows Hollywood is so much in its pocket that it has won. In 2020, China surpassed North America as the world’s largest box office market, and Hollywood film makers have sold out their souls to Beijing. Yet at the same time, it is a sign of insecurity, that it fears a film ending that depicts a threat to authority and so-called ‘stability’.
Human Rights Watch has described the change as ‘dystopian’. Others have also spoken out, including Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who posted a link to a story about the changes, with the question: ‘What Would Tyler Durden Say?’ US senator Ted Cruz wrote: ‘The second rule of Fight Club is “we will do and say whatever the Chinese communist censors tell us to do and say”,’ while the best-selling author Jordan Peterson tweeted: ‘China changes Fight Club film so the authorities win’.
With the Winter Olympics opening next week in Beijing – despite extensive protests and a diplomatic boycott from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Lithuania and others – the Chinese regime has already warned athletes that they would ‘face punishment’ if they criticise Beijing. China is deploying economic coercion to shut down dissent abroad. As the case of Christine Lee shows – and as I have experienced first-hand – China has a dangerous influence campaign involving, infiltration, interference and intimidation in western democracies. Beijing has extended its tentacles deep into Wall Street and the City of London, as well as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and other multilateral institutions. It is rapidly trying to rewrite the rules of the international order – just as it now rewrites the scripts of films it does not like.
Fight Club is just the latest warning sign of the dangerous paranoia and aggression of Xi Jinping’s regime. If we do not stand up to it now, Beijing will continue changing the narrative of the world order in ways that will impact us all. Democracies need to unite to form a new ‘fight club’ – to fight back, for freedom.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.