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TikTok, Mulan, and the Olympics: Contesting Content Control through Trade in the U.S.-China Relationship

2021-22 Wilson China Fellowship Publication Cover
2021-22 Wilson China Fellowship Publication Cover


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s entertainment sector has radically grown in its influence in the United States. China became the largest global theatrical distribution market. At the same time, Chinese social media platform TikTok moved from a fringe app to one of the most dominant players in the U.S. social media landscape, despite national security concerns voiced by both the Trump and Biden Administrations. The following paper outlines Chinese government content control regulations shaping the U.S. market as Chinese influence on the U.S. entertainment industry increases. It then identifies the most prevalent forms of content control and the corporate rationale for such actions. Finally, the paper offers policy proposals that reflect potential options for the U.S. government to reshape this dynamic. Ultimately, the paper argues that for the United States to effectively contend with the challenge of Chinese firms influencing content in the U.S. entertainment industry, the United States must grapple with the relationship between free markets and freedom of expression domestically. 

Implications and Key Takeaways:

  • The United States needs to reevaluate the relationship between freedom of expression and the free market. Chinese firms controlling content via algorithm as well as Hollywood studios following international content control restrictions reflect a prioritization of free market interests. U.S. consumers are alienated from how and why the media they consume gets to them. This is not an issue of U.S.-China relations, but rather an issue of lack of transparency in the U.S. tech sector.
  • The United States should expand state-level data security regulations nationally to protect consumers of digital entertainment in the United States from predatory data usage by both domestic and international firms.
  • Building on national data security regulations domestically, the United States should work with allies and partners to establish multilateral alliances for data storage and security standards.
  • Next, the U.S. government should recognize that tech algorithms offer a strategic national security asset as the Chinese government has done. They ensure both protection of long-term economic gains and military strength. It is thus important to work with tech firms to identify ways to limit the export of critical algorithms.
  • To track content control practices, the United States should implement new regulations requiring content reporting and takedown notices from non-U.S. actors.
  • The U.S. government should explore limiting investment by Chinese media and tech firms operating in the United States. Such financial pressure may offer the chance to renegotiate access for U.S. media and tech firms in China.

About the Author

Aynne Kokas

Aynne Kokas

Wilson China Fellow;
Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia and Senior Faculty Fellow, Miller Center for Public Affairs.
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