JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

A red dawn hovers over the West's privilege of cultural supremacy

But who is going to save the film industry? <i>Iron Man 3</i> has already been altered to cater for Chinese audiences.

But who is going to save the film industry? Iron Man 3 has already been altered to cater for Chinese audiences.

Turns out Robert Downey jnr is a Sinophile. ''I live a very Chinese life in America,'' he recently declared. I don't know what that means, either. But I'm pretty sure it has a lot to do with money. He was speaking at the international promotional launch of Iron Man 3, which took place not in Los Angeles, New York or London, but in Beijing. Behind the gates of the Forbidden City, no less.

None of this happened by accident. When Iron Man 3 hits Chinese cinemas this week, audiences will be seeing a special edit of the film made just for them. It will feature extra sequences shot in China and expanded roles for some Chinese film stars. It will have lucrative product placement from the Chinese tech giant TCL. Indeed, the entire film is a collaboration between Disney and the Chinese production studio DMG Entertainment.

Less frequently do we recognise it brings cultural power, too.  

The film market reflects the geopolitics of our age. America will not be much longer an unrivalled superpower, and China's rise is unstoppable. ''There's always been a number two,'' DMG chief executive Dan Mintz explained. ''But this is the first time anyone is challenging for number one''. It will win that challenge by 2020. Hence, the quest for the Chinese dollar is on - and it has been ever since James Cameron grossed 222 million of them with Avatar.

But that means playing by Chinese rules. In Iron Man 3's case, Chinese government officials were on set to ''monitor filming''. Several other films have shown similar, um, sensitivity. Ugly depictions of the sex trade in the Chinese region of Macau were reportedly dumped from Skyfall, as was a scene in which a Chinese security guard is assassinated. The apocalyptic zombies in World War Z were the result of a Chinese SARS-like virus, until Paramount thought better of it and made the source a Moscow flu, first spotted - of course - by a Chinese scientist. Then there's last year's remake of Red Dawn with an altered plot that has the US invaded not by China, but by North Korea. Or Looper, which depicts a future in which the capital of the world is Beijing, rather than Paris, which was the original plan.

I could go on, but the pattern is clear. ''The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognise China's right to determine what content enters their country,'' a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America said. That's management-speak for ''we have no choice about this if we want to make money … and we do''.

Clearly not everyone is comfortable about all this. A quick scan of the news coverage of Hollywood's Chinese courtship turns up headlines about ''bowing'' and ''kowtowing'' to Chinese sensibilities. Similarly, when Qantas announced recently that - owing to its new partnership with Emirates - pork would not be available on flights going through Dubai, some Australians threatened to boycott Qantas, condemning it for ''sleeping with the Islamic enemy'' and saying ''[our] religion has been disrespected by the removal of pork products'' - because apparently eating pork is now some kind of sacrament. Meanwhile Qantas' ticket sales to Europe have increased 500 per cent.

Welcome to the Asian century. It begins with commerce, but it must inevitably encompass so much more than that. We talk often about how economic power brings with it political and military power. Less frequently do we recognise it brings cultural power, too. So if the age of Western economic domination is coming slowly to an end, so too is the age of Western cultural domination. Hollywood's Chinese dalliance, or Qantas' new menu, are merely the seedlings of this inevitable change.

It has never been entirely true that globalisation is something only the West does to the East. But it is true that its impacts are not evenly felt. Some Eastern phenomena do travel West - Bollywood and Gangnam Style being perhaps the cheesiest examples - but for sheer cultural hegemony, nothing really competes with the West. It is a rare country that escaped all Americanisation of its culture during the 20th century.

But the worm of globalisation is turning. Those screeching at pork-free Qantas flights have probably never given any thought to the fact that almost every Middle Eastern airline - including Emirates - serves alcohol, subordinating the region's own cultural and religious norms to the desires of paying customers. I doubt we'd ever call that ''kowtowing''.

Very few of us will have wondered what it must be like for the developed world to face a steady bombardment of Western sitcoms, action flicks and romantic comedies that, at least until now, were made without a second thought for their compatibility with the cultural values of those societies.

What must it mean to an Asian musician to know that the only path to global stardom is through Western music alone, and that even then the chances are far slimmer than for their American counterparts? We've probably never considered what impact it must have on dark-skinned women around the world to see the fashion centres of Europe producing globally famous white supermodels, which must surely reinforce notions of beauty they can never attain without buying some whitening cream or other product. (Which they do. A lot.)

We don't mean for such things to happen; they just do as the inexorable result of power. Indeed, the privilege of cultural supremacy means we don't even need to think about it. But some day that privilege will change hands. We in the West, with almost no experience of anything other than complete cultural control, will have to come to grips with it. Not for several decades, probably. But it won't be niggle-free. We aren't all Robert Downey jnr. Not all of us can comfortably claim to live very Chinese lives.

Featured advertisers