Last week, Robert Downey Jr. took Beijing. On May 1, the blockbuster franchise Iron Man 3 opened in China, pulling in a record-breaking $21 million on its first day and $65 million over the long weekend. If you've already seen it here in the United States, you haven't quite seen all of it. That's because Chinese audiences were treated to a version that's about four minutes longer, and noticeably different in some awkward ways. Call it kowtowing to the Chinese market or product placement, but it's clear that Beijing's censors had their hands all over this one. To please Chinese authorities, filmmakers changed the name of the film's villain from Mandarin to Man Daren (meaning "big man"), added a plug for a Chinese milk drink that can recharge Iron Man, and inserted a bizarre, almost laughable, scene where the movie's hero goes to China for a critical surgery operation.
When U.S. films come to Chinese theaters, it's pretty easy to see the meddling hand of Chinese censors. But Beijing exerts an almost equally tight control on Chinese cultural exports abroad, contorting the surge of the nation's culture on the world stage.
China is growing in importance as not just as an importer, but also as an exporter of culture. Yet the assertive push to showcase the work of Chinese writers, artists, and cultural innovators inevitably draws attention to those voices and visionaries who are blocked by censorship and related forms of government oppression.
Iron Man 3 was released into a Chinese film market that's heating up quickly. In the last year, nearly 100 new IMAX screens have opened up in China, with over 1,000 more planned. Box office revenues rose by 37 percent in 2012 to $2.7 billion, powering China past Japan as the world's second-largest film market. Approximately 10 new cinema screens open every day. Tapping this lucrative market has become a near obsession for Hollywood executives facing lackluster sales at home. Plots, characters and themes are now being developed with Chinese audiences -- and Chinese censors -- in mind.
The trend is not confined to the big screen. In October 2012, the Shanghai government opened two huge, new, state art museums, including the Shanghai Art Palace which, at 2.1 million square feet, is bigger than New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Both offer an ambitious range of both Chinese art and splashy global exhibitions. Beijing is holding an international architectural competition to design a 1.4 million square foot art museum near the Olympic Stadium. These investments are part of a strategy dubbed "Going Out, Inviting In," which encourages museums to mount shows abroad.
The cultural push goes beyond art. In the last decade, China has opened up more than 350 Confucian Institutes in over 100 countries, with plans to bring the total up to 1,000. Modeled on the British Council and Alliances Françaises, the centers teach Chinese languages and hold performances, kids' events, and conferences. The institutes also fund the travel of thousands of foreign scholars and professionals to China each year. Chinese state-run media companies have established outposts throughout Africa, filling a vacuum left as Western media cuts back on foreign bureaus. And in 2012, the state broadcaster China Central Television entered the U.S. market with a glossy new network broadcasting government-approved news.