Feeding the Chinese Dragon: The Trillion-Dollar Conundrum Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and Corporate America, a cautionary tale critical of Hollywood’s market-driven appeasement of the Chinese government, was published in August 2020 to great fanfare. The author, Fenton, was also framed on the grand stage of U.S.-China relations as a “former dragon feeder.
After a few months, Fenton and his memoir (hereinafter referred to as “Feeding the Chinese Dragon”) have recently been relaunched. The Voice of America interviewed Fenton to ask him to share more insights on “Feeding the Chinese Dragon”.
Reporter: Mr. Fenton, it’s an honor to have you interviewed again by the Chinese section of Voice of America. We saw that Radio France interviewed you earlier this month and did a lengthy report. This has received widespread media attention, including some Chinese language media outside of China, who are keenly responding to the renewed buzz about you, the former “dragon feeder” and your book “Feeding the Chinese Dragon”. Why the renewed hype a few months after the publication of your memoir?
Fenton: I’m glad you’re interviewing me again, too. I am a fan of Voice of America and believe that your mission is in the interest of the American people and the Chinese people. In fact, I have a strong connection to both the Chinese and English divisions of Voice of America.
My book, “Feeding the Chinese Dragon,” received a lot of attention after it was published, and even before. Before that, because the U.S. election was in full swing, Trump‘s Republican Party was talking frequently about China’s challenge to the U.S., and Hollywood and the NBA are very high-profile industries, we were a natural part of the discussion about U.S.-China relations. And my book was right in the middle of such a situation, like opening a hole in a wall and making everything that was behind the wall visible.
After the election, U.S. domestic politics were in the spotlight for a while, and people were more concerned about a peaceful transfer of power. After this is done, how to deal with China coming back into view, including whether the policies set by the Trump Administration should continue or will live on; and what kind of advisers and officials Biden will surround himself with on China, let’s say the secretary of state, the person in charge of the national security apparatus, etc. All of this revolves around whether Biden will continue to be tough on China.
Most importantly, the new crown Epidemic is still serious, and it’s clear that the central idea is that the epidemic is coming from China, that it was China’s problem, and then it became our problem. Moreover, we see that China’s attitude remains belligerent and provocative (aggressive), including the military exercises in the South China Sea, the banning of some films through government means, such as “Land of the Unwanted”, the rhetorical offensive against its director Zhao Ting, and tesla‘s apology for criticizing the Nanchang power grid, which was later criticized by Xinhua as “arrogant”. “These phenomena have all gained media attention. It also shows that the Chinese challenge has not changed in this period, and that more and more Western countries are seeing the problem more clearly. They may feel that the story in “Feeding the Chinese Dragon” is indeed being replayed in the international political arena.
Reporter: I think what the U.S. and other Western countries are wondering is how to co-exist with China in the future, whether to sing black face to the end, or to keep some degree of red face. What do you think?
Fenton: I would say that I am not a dove. If full dovishness is a 1 and full hawkishness is a 10, I’m about a 6, leaning toward hawkishness. However, I don’t want a hot war with China or a cold war, but rather I think our two superpowers need to figure out how to coexist.
I think we are strategic competitors at best, while knowing in our hearts that the two countries will not be friends. I’m talking about the two governments, not the two peoples. On a people level, I like China a lot and have a lot of Chinese friends.
Cultural and commercial exchanges are two of the five pillars that we often talk about that we can work together on. We need to change the way we have engaged in the past to create equity for both countries, which is something that the United States and its allies need to focus on more.
I don’t think we and China will agree on politics, national security or human rights, at least not in the foreseeable future. Let’s put that aside and focus on cultural and commercial exchanges and finding a way to be fair.
I think that access to the capital markets that Americans created for China is at the root of how China got to where it is today, and it is the financial markets that have fostered China’s ability to compete against us. In addition, in every business, including Hollywood, we are willing to transfer technology, do joint ventures, and teach the Chinese how to do things our way, while failing to protect our own intellectual property rights, and doing all of this knowing full well that we are creating a rivalry for ourselves.
It’s worth noting that the US played out a similar script in the early 1800s, except that it was also a liberal capitalist system at the Time and some of the bad practices were individual corporate actions, not government actions. We were trying to catch up with the European industrial revolution and stole a lot of European technology and so on. One day, Europe said, hey, America, enough is enough, please stop. That was the moment when we needed to inform China. But why hasn’t that been done? Why did you wait until a high-profile Trump took office to sound the alarm? We need to reflect.
We really should have said to China much earlier, please stop when you can. Let’s say the SEC should have said, to enter our market, you have to follow the same accounting standards as we do, just like any U.S. company; the WTO should also classify China as a developed country, in short, we need to create a level playing field in every aspect of detail.
Reporter: What role do you now think “Feeding the Chinese Dragon” can play in helping the U.S. “unwind” from China?
Fenton: I don’t want my book to be too preachy and policy-oriented, but rather to show readers how we got to where we are today, how entangled and stuck we are, and how much leverage we have to deal with China’s influence on the U.S., including the pressure their economy is putting on our businesses and industries that want to enter their markets. The pressure that their economy is putting on our businesses and industries that want to enter their markets.
It occurred to me that it would be nice to get people into the story I was telling and see how I got involved and how I realized this many years later. I’m still guilty of not seeing that what I did at the time was harmful in the long run, and I didn’t wake up until 2019 when I saw how the anti-revisionist movement in Hong Kong caused the U.S. NBA to suffer a ban in China. I want readers to understand that most people are doing what I did, and that’s what led to the problems we have today.
We are like a cog in a machine, focused on our own field, which is cultural and commercial exchange, without trying to intentionally sell out the soul of America and the values and interests we hold fast to, even though we are capitalist and need to make money; no one is intentionally selling out to get into the market, though of course there may be individuals who do. Most were on a mission of globalization and were doing their best to open markets because it also benefited America and world allies.
This is what drove me at the time, but over time, it turned out that the result was to fuel the unfair competition mentality of another major power. This is something that not only we need to reflect on personally, but the government needs to reflect as well.
Reporter: Just now you mentioned the recent incident that Zhao Ting, a young Chinese-American female director who has become famous in the film industry, was criticized by China for her remarks and her Golden Globe Award-winning film “Land of the Unwanted” was quietly cancelled in China. Some netizens have commented that in the future, Hollywood will no longer dare to use Chinese people in their films, or will not let them get involved in Chinese themes, because you never know where you will step on a mine field. Do you think that’s the case?
Fenton: I happen to think that Hollywood should go back to the days of making good movies, making good movie and TV content, stop thinking about China, and just make good movies and let the movie industry do a good movie industry. As long as we do a good job, there are naturally Chinese consumers to consume. Now one more thing, I was also asked if we can produce some sensitive topics for China. My answer is, sure, we should do that, we should start moving more in that direction. Not only that, but we should also support all the studios to act as an industry, rather than going it alone, to prevent retaliation in China. Only by joining forces as an industry will we have the strength to deal with retaliation.
For China, it is easier for China to save face by backing off if we stand firm together, because the government can use a firewall to keep out content it doesn’t like. But Hollywood can take its movies to the rest of the world. We can still win.
I don’t think there is anyone in Hollywood who now sees the Chinese Communist Party and doesn’t understand the mistakes that have been made in dealing with the Chinese government and also believes that they should all be corrected. Although two years ago, I was somehow strangely stupid enough not to realize it.
But it’s also important to see the reality of the problem. Unlike companies like Amazon, which have no history of dealing with China, traditional Hollywood studios have a history of dealing with China. And, with the traditional Hollywood infrastructure now under siege from the daily changes in tech, the new crown epidemic and changing consumer tastes, China continues to be a topic of conversation between studios and investors, shareholders, etc. I think that traditional studios are very reluctant to discuss what is in fact happening.
That is, Hollywood is still trying to do a great deal to get China excited about our activities, including the things that aren’t right. Also, Hollywood is losing the market because having trained the Chinese film industry with our set, they can make the same level of films as we do with their own people. What’s more, they have become more powerful and imposing under the regulatory system.
I think that by now, Hollywood studios are recognizing this, but are afraid to admit it publicly because that would upset and worry shareholders and investors, and would lead to a change in the assessment of the studios. That is to say, if these studios take a stand against China, it will only accelerate the loss of market share.
Reporter: I noticed that your podcast is titled “Feeding the Chinese Dragon” and uses the slogan “Fenton and Ryan (the other host) go over the latest news from China”. You’re not a political figure or an academic researcher, but you’ve dedicated your show to an intensive discussion of China, do you feel like you’re on a mission?
Fenton: I have two children, the Golden Pig, who are now 14 years old. My mission and purpose is that I firmly believe that the two superpowers, the United States and China, somehow need to share the world in order for me to survive, for my children to survive, and for my grandchildren to survive.
I wish I could do something to move the two countries in a constructive direction. But I am not an expert, and although I have been to and from China countless times, I have never lived there; and although I know a lot, I know I don’t know a lot yet.
However, in my own way, I can seek to appeal to every American and tell everyone that we all relate to China. I hope to use that to get attention and to push for policy, not just at the government level, but also at the level of large corporations.
I think that the number of people who understand and are engaged means that I have to tell the story, and I have to do it in a way that is entertaining in order for people to get it; to engage them in an everyday way, and that’s my role.
I can do that to keep things simple and to have people realize that it’s not in our best interest to go to war with another superpower or to go into a cold war. But at the same time, we need to figure out a way to break out of the last 40 years, and that’s the key.
The United States helped build the market in China. We need to make our money back and profit China with values that are consistent with what America holds and is proud of, but with the understanding that they may never be our friends and, frankly, may never achieve democracy; that perhaps we may never build a bond of honor and shame between us, but that it is necessary to correct the injustice on the playing field and give both countries new opportunities.
This can only happen if enough people understand the issues. That’s what I’m trying to do in the podcast.
Reporter: The name of your memoir, Feeding the Dragon, has made its way into your Twitter name, TheDragonFeeder, as well as your podcast name -also “Feeding the Dragon”. It seems that these two words have become your hashtag, or rather you have created a brand. Was this something you pushed for intentionally or was it a natural progression?
Fenton: People also ask me why I tweet “The Dragon Feeder” and my answer is that I had to live with the hashtag until I could push for a change, which was to stop feeding the dragons.
I see myself as a co-conspirator in everything that’s happened and I’ve fed the dragons, but I want to change it all, even if I can only make a small difference. In fact, the brand was becoming popular.
I disclose in the book that I did have people warn me during that process that I was feeding the dragon; my wife asked me repeatedly if I really wanted to feed the beast that way, that maybe after a certain point the beast would become out of control, and I said actually this is China, maybe a red dragon. She said, ah, is to feed the red dragon. This is an interesting episode. My theme of “feeding the red dragon” is a natural evolution.
The comforting thing is that the name gives me motivation every day to move forward from behind the scenes. Of course, now we are pushing for a change in the relationship with China, pushing to make the field balanced, and it will certainly cause a bit of confusion. But when we get out of the chaos, even though China won’t be our ally, but a strategic adversary, our relationship will be a little healthier. To me, that means a better world.
It won’t be easy to do that, but it’s not impossible. I will keep fighting and resisting. Gotta try, right. I’m glad you’re doing this for Voice of America because you have an international readership and audience, and “Feed the Dragon” is a global issue that fits right in.
Now, we’re seeing Australia, the U.K. and Canada all taking action. I think the U.S. really needs to get on board as soon as possible to show a united Western front.
Reporter: Thank you, Mr. Fenton, for taking the time to be interviewed by Voice of America and for offering thoughts on unlocking U.S.-China relations. I hope that Mr. Fenton’s children and grandchildren will live peacefully and happily in the global village.
Postscript: According to Variety, a weekly entertainment industry magazine, Fenton was the president of DMG Entertainment and the company’s general manager for North America. He is the producer or executive producer of twenty-one films that have grossed $2 billion at the worldwide box office.