As China’s economy has boomed, corporations and individuals with historically close ties to the government have been the major beneficiaries. Sitting flush with massive amounts of cash on hand, power players in the Chinese markets have increasingly sought to branch out and increase their investments in foreign countries. Many of these investments target key industries despite their own government often restricting or forbidding the same kind of foreign investment domestically.
Concerningly, figures with ties to anti-American factions of the Chinese government such as real estate mogul Wang Jianlin have targeted American media outlets in the U.S. as investment targets while at the same time beginning to increase rhetoric towards U.S. leaders and becoming involved in corruption scandals. The increased investment comes at a time where Hollywood celebrities have also become increasingly cozy with Asian investors and in some cases become embroiled in Asian financial scandals.
I. Wang Jianlin Is A Former PLA Regimental Commander Whose Dailan Wanda Group Has Been Acquiring Various Hollywood Media Assets
Wang Jianlin (王健林) is a Chinese billionaire who stands at what the New York Times has described as the intersection of business and power in China. Mr. Wang served 16 years in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, rising to the rank of regimental commander. He is described by Forbes magazine as connected to Ke Xiping, the Chinese Tycoon who played a middleman role in helping the government of China in buying influence in Democratic propaganda outlet Shareblue. In 1988 he was offered a management position at a debt-burdened state run enterprise while working at a provincial government post in Dalian, China. The company was transformed into the Dalian Wanda Group (大连万达集团) and established itself building and operating commercial property, luxury hotels, culture and tourism, and department stores. While the company has its roots in property and infrastructure, Mr. Wang has begun to push Dalian Wanda in a bold new direction: investing in all six of Hollywood’s major studios.
One of Dalian Wanda’s first major acquisitions in Hollywood was AMC Entertainment Holdings, purchased in 2012 as part of what was described as being an attempt by the Chinese movie industry to study American markets and understand why viewers had previously been unresponsive to Chinese media. In January 2016, Dalian Wanda purchased Legendary Entertainment, who have co-financed dozens of movies with partners, including films such as “The Dark Knight,” “Jurassic World” and “Straight Outta Compton.” The investment was followed by a purchase of a stake in Sony Pictures.
Dalian Wanda’s push to acquire real estate in the Hollywood film industry has been fraught with pushback from both American interests as well as other Chinese groups competing with Wang for control in Hollywood. Wang also made a bid to acquire Dick Clark Productions, the company responsible for running the Golden Globes and Miss America pageants. On March 17th, 2017, Variety reported that the $1 billion deal had fallen through. Reuters speculated that the deal’s failure might be due to high U.S.-China tensions and tight scrutiny by Beijing on outbound deals. In March 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping replaced the PLA’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, a move that many observers saw as an effort to clean up corruption and consolidate Beijing’s control of the PLA. The action may have affected Wang’s business dealings due to his affiliation with factions of the Chinese military. In September 2016, Viacom vetoed a deal to sell a stake Paramount Pictures to Dalian Wanda, instead opting to revive negotiations with two other Chinese media companies in April.
II. Hollywood Celebrities Have Been Wooed To Asia, Become Involved In Scandals
Wang Jianlin has also made overtures towards Hollywoods celebrities in an effort to draw them into the Asian film market. When Wang opened his Oriental Movie Metropolis in Qingdao, China, a number of A-list stars including Nicole Kidman, Kate Beckinsale, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio and Zhang Ziyi were in attendance.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s increased focus on Asian markets and audiences has also managed to land him in scandal, specifically for his involvement in the Malaysian 1MDB scandal. The 1MDB Scandal began in 2015 when it was discovered that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had funneled over $700 million from the state run 1Malaysia Development Berhad development fund into his personal accounts. These reports sparked panic as 1MDB faced increasing difficulty repaying its debts. The scandal spread as governments around the world moved to arrest involved parties and seize assets. In the United States, the Department of Justice moved in and made what the BBC reported as being its largest asset seizure in history, over $1 billion.
The scandal also involved Chinese banking conglomerates who have assisted with Dalian Wanda’s acquisitions abroad. A press releases from 1MDB’s website and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce revealed that the state run Export-Import Bank of China (中国进出口银行) (China-Exim) agreed in 2014 to jointly develop the Tun Razak ITC Landmark Building in Malaysia. Started in 2014, the project was not scheduled to be completed until 2027, raising questions about whether or not the deal was a fraudulent transaction intended to conceal transfers of cash.
DiCaprio’s involvement centered around revelations that the production company behind the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. The Hollywood Reporter also noted that the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation allegedly received money from a Christie’s charity auction in which businessman Jho Low allegedly used $1.1 million from the 1MDB fund to purchase to pieces of art. The Wall Street Journal reported that DiCaprio was cooperating with the Department of Justice in their probe of the scandal. Disobedient Media has previously reported that DiCaprio has in the past been involved along with other celebrities in a money laundering scheme being run by an alleged Russian mobster.
III. Concerns About Chinese Use Of Hollywood Media To Project “Soft Power”
Many have expressed reservations about China’s forays into American media outlets due to the influence they hold over American hearts and minds. The Los Angeles Times has cited concerns among some lawmakers that Dalian Wanda could wield too much control over the content and distribution of American movies given its close ties to the Chinese government. During the time that Wang Jianlin’s holdings were exercising increased influence over the Golden Globes, the 2017 awards ceremony was one of the most political on record despite Wanda executives’ assurances to the press that they would not use their control of Dick Clark to interfere with the awards process. In an October 2016 article by Variety, Hawk Koch, a Hollywood based advisor to Wang Jianlin, directly stated that Chinese films would play a larger role in studios purchased by Dalian Wanda.
The deep ties that Wang Jianlin has to the People’s Liberation Army do not inspire confidence in his claims that he would not use his control over U.S. media outlets for propaganda purposes. China has in the past used mediums such as radio to influence Americans and push tacitly pro-Chinese messages. In November 2015, a Reuters investigation into a local Washington D.C. radio station exposed the involvement of Chinese government in controlling radio broadcasting at 33 radio stations in 14 countries being run in a covert manner by the state run China Radio International.
The Chinese government has at times played a central role to Dalian Wanda’s expansion which accentuates concerns over how Wang Jianlin’s control of U.S media will be used. When Wang purchased AMC Entertainment, the deal was financed by the China Exim Bank, which was previously also tied to the 1MDB scandal.
The close relationship between Wang Jianlin, the PLA and the China-Exim Bank raises the very real possibility that factions within the country will exert their influence in Hollywood to push Chinese “soft power” to American and international audiences, given that China has a history of engaging in this kind of behavior.
IV. Wang Jianlin Has Engaged In Anti-Trump Rhetoric And Become Involved In U.S. Scandals
Since beginning his push to focus on acquiring Hollywood film industry assets, Wang Jianlin has begun to engage in increasingly hostile rhetoric against president Donald Trump. On December 10th, 2016, Wang issued veiled threats to the incoming U.S. leader where he warned that 20,000 people employed by him “wouldn’t have anything to eat” in the event that things were “handled poorly” during future negotiations.
Wang’s newfound boldness in speaking out so strongly against U.S. authorities may arise from the fact that he has so far been able to escape consequences for his role in a New York scandal involving mayor Bill DeBlasio. On August 29th, 2016, local New York media outlet Spectrum News revealed that in March 2016 a City Hall lobbyist Jim Capalino had set up a private, no cameras allowed meeting between Bill de Blasio and Wang Jianlin. A spokesperson said that the meeting was about Chinese tourism.
The meeting was significant as China Vanke, a firm Wang had partnered with, is implicated in a scandal surrounding Rivington House. Rivington House was a Lower East Side nursing home which was converted into luxury apartments and sold for a $72 million profit after a city agency approved a zoning change. The day after Spectrum News’ story, Daily News reported that De Blasio cut ties to Capalino after the lobbyist was implicated in a number of “pay-to-plan” schemes being investigated by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. The New York Post mentions that Capalino is one of a number of lobbyists with close ties to Bill de Blasio who are under legal scrutiny for alleged fraud or cronyism.
Wang Jianlin’s involvement in American corruption, his brazen rhetoric towards U.S. politicians and his increasing control over the content of media which is consumed by Western viewers and audiences presents a very real problem given his historic ties to the PLA. Disobedient Media has noted in the past that Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches directly implicate factions in the PLA as being responsible for promoting Chinese policies of non-intervention in North Korea, emboldening the country to acquire nuclear weapons and engage in belligerent and hostile behavior towards their neighbors. The close proximity of Wang and his empire to figures associated with such activities creates questions about his true intentions regarding U.S. investment and the U.S. political figures who willingly welcome him with open arms.