Netflix makes the China connection
Culture | U.S. senators question the streaming company’s commitment to human rights
by Sharon Dierberger
Posted 9/29/20, 03:35 pm
Netflix shrugged off concerns five Republican senators voiced last week over a new TV series planned by the streaming service. The lawmakers accused the company of normalizing Chinese atrocities against ethnic minorities by adapting a Chinese book trilogy.
In a letter to Netflix, the senators—all outspoken Christians—requested the company explain its decision to produce The Three-Body Problem trilogy in light of disturbing comments by its author, Liu Cixin. During an interview last summer with The New Yorker, Liu praised the Chinese government’s mistreatment and internment of the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group living in northwest China. Chinese officials accuse the Uighurs of plotting against the state.
“Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks?” Liu said. “The government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.”
The plight of the Uighurs has gained worldwide attention. The crackdown on the minority in Xinjiang has involved forced labor, internment, sterilization, and abortion. Some witnesses even have accused the Chinese government of killing Uighur infants. In July, representatives of the minority group filed evidence at the International Criminal Court requesting a formal investigation of the Chinese government and its leaders for alleged genocide and other human rights violations. The Trump administration in August began weighing whether to formally designate China’s abuse of the Uighurs as genocide.
On Friday, Dean Garfield, Netflix’s vice president of public policy, responded to GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Martha McSally of Arizona, Rick Scott of Florida, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. He said the company agrees Chinese persecution of the Uighurs is unacceptable, but it has no intention of stopping production.
“Netflix judges individual projects on their merits,” Garfield said, adding that Liu’s comments don’t reflect the views of Netflix or the show’s creators and are not part of the plot or themes of the story. The trilogy’s first book won Liu the 2015 Hugo Award, science fiction’s top honor and a first for an Asian writer. Netflix has chosen the executive producers of the HBO smash hit Game of Thrones to turn the books into a series.
Executives at Netflix could learn from watching Disney’s China mess. Its live adaptation of Mulan, released earlier this month, faces ongoing boycotts because of human rights abuses by the Chinese government and its crackdown on political protests in Hong Kong. Mulan actress and star Liu Yifei sparked a Twitter backlash when she made comments a year ago supporting police over protesters in Hong Kong. Observers also dissed Disney for filming parts of Mulan in the province where the Uighur brutalities are allegedly taking place.
The senators’ query and subsequent Netflix response raise questions: Would Netflix have dared sign a similar deal with an author who made racist comments about African Americans but published an unrelated book?
Or, conversely, are well-meaning senators promoting the cancel culture they have criticized? In August, Blackburn condemned the cancellation by the left of a Tennessee restaurant for providing food for participants at a pro-police rally: “Make no mistake—this is nothing less than an attempt to extort compliance from the American people.” Rick Scott called boycotters ridiculous when they targeted Goya Foods because its CEO refused to back down from supporting President Donald Trump. He urged people to “reject the liberal mob’s cancel culture.”
In their letter to Netflix, the senators did not demand the company stop production of the trilogy or even call for a boycott. They urged Netflix not to provide a platform to Liu, thereby using its corporate influence to help pressure Chinese authorities into stopping the horrific oppression of an entire population.
For Netflix, the lure of profits from bestselling book adaptations looms large. A film version of an earlier book by Liu, The Wandering Earth, became one of China’s highest-grossing movies ever.
Although pleas for Netflix to avoid any semblance of complicity with China’s brutality have fallen on deaf ears, the senators did focus further global attention on the repression while exposing more of what makes Netflix tick. Let the buyer beware.
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Sharon is a correspondent and reviewer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate. She has served as a university teacher, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, businesswoman, and Division 1 athlete. She resides in Stillwater, Minnesota, with her husband, Bill.