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Manhattan Beach author Chris Fenton addresses ‘Feeding the Dragon: The Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA and American Business’

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MB resident Chris Fenton confronts the ‘Dragon’ of censorship. Photo by JP Cordero

by Ryan McDonald

Diamonds. Motorcycles. Hang gliders. The scene would have it all, Manhattan Beach resident Chris Fenton promised in his pitch to Chinese officials.

Fenton was working on the 2015 remake of the 1991 surfer heist flick “Point Break.” He and his team envisioned a “cold open” for the film — the remake maintains the adrenaline-junkie thieves conceit of the original but expands it to more exotic locales — set in a diamond operation on the “150th floor” of a skyscraper of in the Pudong district of Shanghai.

“An elevator opens, and our ‘Robin Hood’ characters come out on motorcycles, and they drive through breaking glass and grabbing all the diamonds, and everybody’s yelling and screaming and calling the guards and everything. Everybody’s like, ‘Where are they going?’ and they just shoot straight out the window. And of course when they get out there they flash out these hang gliding things. They’re hang gliding out of the building, they escape, and because they’re Robin Hood characters they take all the diamonds and just dump them into the streets below,” Fenton said, summing up the pitch in an interview last week.

It was ultimate popcorn fare, but the scene as envisioned didn’t make it. At the time, Fenton was president of DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group, a large media company based in China, which co-produced the “Point Break” remake and other box office hits. Fenton needed the approval of Chinese authorities not just to shoot the high-flying heist, but to distribute the film in the country. And the government censors, who have broad authority to reject the content of movies and other media, felt that the scene provided an unbecoming depiction.

“‘First of all, these characters would have been arrested and caught before they even got out of the building. Our police forces are way too good for that to happen,’” Fenton said, describing the reaction of Chinese censors. “And then they said, ‘Even if they did escape, and they flew out and let all those diamonds out on the street, no Chinese would pick up those diamonds.’”

Fenton laughed as he recalled the authorities’ response. But of late he has been more prone to reflection and concern, feelings that he channeled into “Feeding the Dragon: The Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA and American Business.” His book hit store shelves across the country July 28. He’ll be appearing with Dan Hellie, an announcer with Fox Sports and the NFL Network, this Thursday at 6 p.m. in a virtual conversation hosted by {pages}: a bookstore.

“Feeding the Dragon” looks at the dark side of U.S. companies’ relationships with China. Courtesy photo

The book is a whirlwind autobiography in the mold of “The Education of Henry Adams,” one in which a life’s events provide an opportunity to reckon with a world that is changing rapidly if not necessarily for the better. (Fenton, devoid of pretension, compared his story to that of the foreman character played by Michael Keaton in “Gung Ho,” the 1986 Ron Howard comedy about a U.S. auto plant that gets taken over by a Japanese company.) Fenton finds himself at DMG at the dawn of the new millennium and worked there for nearly two decades, a span that consumes most of the book and that coincides with the accelerated liberalization of China’s economy. As Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz noted in his 2018 book “The Fight for the Future of Movies,” in 2005, the highest-grossing U.S. film in China was “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which earned a little under $12 million. In 2017, the highest earner was “The Fate of the Furious,” which earned more than $390 million.

It’s also a conversion story. The “dilemma” of the title is the pressure that U.S. firms face to crimp American values in order to gain access to the vast, lucrative Chinese market. And despite its topical focus, his insider perspective gives the book a breezy readability. Fenton’s ideological journey takes him from optimism to hawkishness, and he sought to write a “Michael Lewis” style look at what the at-any-cost-foray into China has wrought. 

“Over time, obviously, we found out that what we were doing, me in particular in the sports and movie industry, was not in the best interest of America. It just wasn’t. Now I’m out very vocally saying, admitting, that I was complicit in being part of the problem, and now I want to be a part of the solution,” Fenton said in the interview.

Fenton’s book arrives at a time of rapidly increasing tension between the U.S. and China. Last Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, in which he described the last half-century of engagement with China, a period that began with Nixon’s “ping pong diplomacy” overtures in the early ‘70s, as a failure.

“We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which [Chinese President] Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it,” Pompeo said.

The rupture that Pompeo described mirrors the one that his boss, President Donald Trump, has brought to American politics. To the extent that Trump’s often contradictory public statements can be associated with a coherent political philosophy, it might be called national conservatism. It is a belief system that embraces free-market capitalism but rejects the border-dissolving cosmopolitanism that has long been treated as its inevitable outcome.

Not surprisingly, some of the early attention that Fenton’s book has earned has come from conservative circles. He has appeared on the podcast of Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, and has penned a pair of op-eds for the right-leaning website The Federalist. But Fenton describes himself as “very nonpartisan,” and over the past year his concerns about China have gained purchase on the other side of the aisle. The mass detention of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang territory and suppression of the Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests have provided grim reminders of the country’s indifference toward human rights, and how effective the Chinese state can be at subverting them.

The stakes of the problem became clearer on Oct. 4, when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Fenton was attending his son’s soccer game in Manhattan Beach when the Tweet popped up on his phone. He turned to the dad of one of his son’s teammates and said, “That’s going to be a problem for the NBA in China.” The other dad asked why.

If he’d been lugging them around at the time, Fenton might have dumped the galleys for “Feeding the Dragon” at the man’s feet. Before Marvel movies, the NBA was the dominant face of American capitalism in China, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its tracing of the history of basketball in the country. (Mao Zedong, he notes, was born around the same time that YMCA missionaries brought basketball to the country.) By the time of his son’s soccer game, after he has left China, the league’s future is so wrapped up in the country that Fenton foresees the internal dispute in the NBA over how to respond to Morey’s comments, which the government in Beijing viewed as supporting a separatist rebellion, one that included criticism of Morey from Lakers star LeBron James.

“What I didn’t predict whatsoever was that that moment in time was going to wake up the country to what we were doing in all businesses across all industries to get access to that really lucrative growing market,” he said.

Just as movie studios cut content to appease censors, the NBA, Fenton worries, is limiting the sphere of permissible activism, leading to “the hypocrisy of how the NBA speaks out about some stuff and not others.” Earlier this month, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, wrote a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after the league finalized the list of permissible jersey slogans for its COVID-19 “bubble” season, which begins Thursday. “Let your players stand up for the Uighurs and the people of Hong Kong,” Hawley wrote. “Let them stand up for American law enforcement if they so choose.”

There is nothing hypocritical about a league choosing to focus its activist energy on the impact of centuries of systemic racism on Black people when 75 percent of its players are Black. Hawley’s letter, by tying concerns about China to skepticism of demonstrations against police brutality, suggests that criticism of China is as deeply politicized as appeasement. 

But acceptance of Chinese censorship is undermining American goals in complex ways. In a January story for The New Yorker, reporter Evan Osnos pointed out that the Chinese version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” had to exclude scenes about Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s sexual orientation. The danger of the “bowdlerized portrait of the world” that Chinese censors produce, he suggests, may be greater for Chinese people than for American companies. 

“Censored imports have helped acclimate Chinese citizens to a parallel reality, in which Freddie Mercury is not gay, and in which nobody in the N.B.A cares about Hong Kong. When Chinese consumers erupt at something like Daryl Morey’s tweet, it indicates not a growing awareness of what the world thinks but a growing seclusion from it,” Osnos wrote.

Fenton completed his book in January 2020, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic spread from Wuhan, China to the rest of the world, which has only worsened relations between the two countries. At a Tulsa campaign rally on June 20, Trump said that the coronavirus went by “many names,” including the “kung flu.” Four days later, at a campaign rally at a Phoenix megachurch, attendees began chanting it themselves. Trump, unable to resist, intoned “Kung flu, yeah. Kung flu.”

Fenton, in a brief afterward, chastises the Trump administration for “labeling COVID-19 in derogatory ways,” which hardly seems strong enough. The decades long policy of engagement that Pompeo derided was premised on the idea that embracing Western-style capitalism would make China more like the West. Xi’s reign, which now appears limited only by his lifespan, has demolished that premise. But if anything, America under the Trump administration has begun to look a bit more like Xi’s China. Last week, Attorney General Bill Barr joined the chorus of criticism about hypocrisy over China even as federal agents of his department were firing projectiles at protesting moms in Portland. Given how difficult it has proven for our country’s leader to distinguish between promoting American values and denigrating people not from America, it’s fair to ask where the attempt to yoke patriotism to international capitalism will lead.

In recent years some scholars have argued that something like a new Cold War between the U.S. and China is inevitable. Harvard political scientist Graham Allison suggested that the United States and China may be caught in what he calls a “Thucydides trap,” after the Athenian historian’s conclusion that the Peloponnesian War was the result of implacable tension between established and emerging powers. Fenton is more sanguine. The two countries are intertwined economically, he said, in a way that the United States and the Soviet Union never were. And though he may share in some of current tough-on-China enthusiasm, his outlook is ultimately more patient and more outward-looking than some of his fellow hawks.

“Deep in my heart I know we must continue to coexist through the bonds formed by bilateral exchange of culture and commerce,” he writes toward the close of his book. “Not only is there big business to be had by doing so, but the fate of the world depends on it.” ER

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