Celebrate the Facts!
The Battle at Lake Changjin, a Chinese studio release, is the second biggest grossing movie in the world this year, a signal moment in the seismic disruption in the filmmaking industry. But the significance of this event goes way beyond money. The United States has used films since the creation of the media as promotional tools to support American exceptionalism, and China took a page from the playbook in developing their film industry.
In 2020, China overtook the United States to become the top movie market globally. The country, perennially the second-largest movie market, brought in $3.1 billion at the box office in 2020, nearly $1 billion more than the United States.
The success of The Battle at Lake Changjin is no fluke as Chinese films had impressive finishes in the top-25 films by international revenue. Hi Mom, a Chinese comedy, finished third, Detective Chinatown 3, a mystery, finished sixth, and Godzilla vs. Kong, a collaboration between Toho and Warner Bros., finished eighth.
The Chinese government limits screening of international movies to 34 a year. Further, it determines release dates, how much advertising, and the number of theaters that can screen them. As a result, the Chinese built about 75,000 screens, compared to about 41,000 in the United States.
China’s theaters have been operating at 75 percent seating capacity crowds have returned to theaters, unlike those in the United States, hastening the anticipated changes in dynamics. Regardless, the changes were already well in process.
American film studios often attempt to develop films that will play well in China, helping ensure profits. However, one of the most prominent examples of a crossover miss was 2017’s The Great Wall. The movie cost $150 million to make and distribute and grossed an embarrassing $45 million in the United States and $334 million globally. The film, purporting to be an action/fantasy/adventure, starring a wooden Matt Damon, failed to gain traction and went swirling down the stool as one of the biggest film mistakes ever.
China has an aggressive policy on government censorship of films. For example, the Chinese objected to same-sex relationships in Bohemian Rhapsody. It also prohibited Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ostensibly because it included ghosts and cannibalism.
In a significant sense, the lucrative Chinese market drove the production of films that could bridge the cultural gap between America and China. These were not character and plot-driven thoughtful art films. Instead, American studios found that simple action films and superhero movies could span the cultural divide. These films focused on computer-driven imagery (CGI), two-dimensional characters, cliché dialogue, and simplistic good-versus-evil plots.
The American film industry has developed a habit of relying on Chinese investment for producing films and sales revenue for profits. As a result, shareholder value mantras, the bane of long-term strategic development, have encouraged behaviors that raise profits. One of those behaviors is self-censorship to make films more palatable to the Chinese.
Chinese revenues also tempted studios to develop ‘Nancy Drew’ franchises, like Fast and Furious, the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe,’ and the Transformers. This content, requiring enormous investments for production, was mere entertainment. They crowded out actual films and reduced the market for original content, character-driven stories, and, particularly, creativity.
The American film industry became addicted to easy Chinese money. The gravy train is ending. In the tradition of industry leaders devoured by disruptive competition, Hollywood will likely continue to pursue access to China and tailor its content to ensure access. American movie theater attendance has been declining for decades, leaving American studios more reliant than ever on the Chinese market for revenue. But they are increasingly failing to strike a chord with Chinese audiences.
The China Film Administration in November 2021 released its 14th five-year plan. The plan committed to turning China into a ‘strong cultural power’ by ‘adhering to the Party's total leadership over film work.’
The plan includes:
A hidden part of these changes is the international effects. American movies come along with many cultural and political messages. One cannot miss the Americanism of the benevolent capitalist Tony Stark in the Ironman series or a red, white, and blue-clad Wonder Woman. Superman fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Blockbuster American films also feature dominantly white and male leading actors, with women and minorities often in subordinate and stereotyped roles.
The United States Department of Defense routinely provides access to military facilities and experts for Hollywood productions that reflect well on the domestic military, further extending the international reach of America.
Conversely, the world’s 2021 second best-grossing film, The Battle at Lake Changjin, features courageous Chinese military forces defeating Imperialist United States marines. A catastrophic retreat south of the 38th parallel resulted in a stalemate that ended the war. As the Chinese cinematic industry improves, one can expect more sophisticated and crafted films, providing international competition for a tired American studio industry. And more messaging featuring Chinese Communist Party themes.
Cannabis is here and not going away for many reasons, chiefly being the tax revenue by governments. Touted for its many health benefits throughout history and the poster child for the failed War on Drugs movement, cannabis is moving into the mainstream of American life. In addition, there is encouraging, albeit nascent, evidence for cannabis in treating a range of psychiatric disorders, including the scourges of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.
Public support for legalizing marijuana use increased from 25% in 1995 to 60% in 2016, rising in lockstep with the backing for same-sex marriage. Between November 2012 and November 2016, voters in eight states passed ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana sales for nonmedical purposes—covering one-fifth of the population of the United States.
Three states – Arizona, Montana, New Jersey – passed legislation in November 2020 to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults. That, plus New York, Virginia, New Mexico, and Connecticut's 2021 initiatives, makes 18 states where adults can legally buy recreational marijuana. Thirty states have legalized medical cannabis.
Legalizing recreational cannabis has substantially reduced the price, increased its potency, and made it more available to adult users. It appears to have increased the frequency of cannabis use among adults, but not so far among youth.
The path to legalization of recreational cannabis in the United States began with citizen-initiated referenda that legalized the medical use of cannabis, first for severe illnesses like cancer via traditional pharmacies and later by retail, commercial cannabis medical dispensaries. Legal medical marijuana softened public opposition to the legal recreational cannabis sales, with Colorado and Washington State, in 2012.
Illustrative of the revenue side on cannabis is the state of Illinois, which legalized recreational cannabis starting January 2020. Illinois sold about $670 million in marijuana in 2020 and took in about $205 million in tax revenue.
Illinois has exceeded $1.3 billion in adult-use marijuana sales in 2021 as of November, the most recent data date. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) reported about $120 million in recreational cannabis purchases in October 2021. About $82 million was by Illinois residents, but an astonishingly large amount of $39 million from out-of-state visitors.
November 2021 was the ninth consecutive month recreational marijuana sales surpassed $100 million in Illinois. By the end of the third quarter of 2021, Illinois had garnered more tax dollars from marijuana than alcohol.
Adjacent, more conservative states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana can hear that tax revenue running into Illinois, and it is only a matter of time before they legalize recreational use of cannabis.
For simplicity, people split cannabis into:
Historic War on Drugs mentalities crushed research into the possible benefits of cannabis, although there was a substantial amount of research into its hazards, particularly maladaptive results. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ((DSM) even devised a term called cannabis use disorder and defined it by nine pathological patterns classified under impaired control, social impairment, risky behavior, or physiological adaptation.
Institutional prejudice, researcher proclivities, and the needs of funding organizations tainted previous research. In addition, governments used the results to justify the militarization of drug control and the incarceration of the poor and minorities tainted previous research.
This recent gold standard double-blind placebo-controlled meta-study analyses provide empirical support for medical cannabis use:
There are general conclusions one can draw from the research. Cannabis might be a treatment for chronic pain and anxiety, although the effects are modest.
In 2016, about 20% of U.S. adults had chronic pain, and about 8% of adults had high-impact chronic pain. Both were more prevalent among adults living in poverty, adults with less than high school education, and adults with public health insurance. Cannabis offers a palliative treatment, not a cure, and one might wish to consider its use and a variety of management strategies.
About 31% of U.S. adults will have an anxiety disorder at some point, and about 19% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder in the past year. Past year prevalence of anxiety disorder was higher for females (about 23%) than for males (about 14%).
The anxiety effects of cannabis in clinical populations are surprisingly not well-documented. Past studies have examined the effects of cannabis on anxiety and mood symptoms in healthy people and several small studies of synthetic cannabinoid agents, but there are currently no studies that have examined the effects of the cannabis plant on anxiety and related disorders. Given the modest effects scientists have been able to document, in this case also, one should consider cannabis as a part of a suite of management modalities.
For other chronic psychiatric conditions, there is very little authoritative research available. Depression is a common illness worldwide, with an estimated 3.8% of the population affected, including 5.0% among adults and 5.7% among adults older than 60 years. Depression can cause the affected person to suffer greatly, function poorly at work, school, and socially. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide, and more than 700,000 people die due to suicide every year.
There is a massive population in the United States with the referenced chronic conditions, all of which Western medicine is poor at managing. Those people are looking for answers, and legal cannabis is one of them they are likely to explore.
The real problem is the lack of research combined with the accessibility of cannabis. Western medicine is not adept at treating chronic conditions, particularly depression, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic pain, and the afflicted are likely to consider alternative modalities, including cannabis. Anecdotal accounts, unreliable media advice, advertisement, and advice by untrained practitioners will drive sales to manage chronic conditions rather than unbiased and authoritative guidance.
On the bright side, legalization provides many positives, as the sales require analysis and labeling. However, if people need cannabis, they can access it legally, keep a consistent dose, and procure it at a relatively low cost.
One of the most polarizing figures in American political history, David Duke is an integral force and thought leader in white nationalism. Duke has developed his brand through 50 years of activism, rooted in white grievance and antisemitism, and fostered some of the leaders in the alt-right movement, included Neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer and dog-whistler in chief Steve Bannon. Intelligent, urbane, educated, and bolstered by plastic surgery and testosterone, Duke remains a formative figure in the international racist and antisemitic movements.
Far from an artifact of a long-lost racist era, Duke remains active traveling the United States and abroad to spread his views. He sells his books and Duke-branded fan gear on his website and has convened and spoken at white nationalist conferences. He has also visited Russia, Ukraine, and other European countries to promote his work while living in some of those countries.
It is hard to tell if Duke is a true believer or a huckster, but more likely, he is a combination of both. Duke is undeniably charismatic and has the demeanor of an antebellum Southern gentleman. Duke loves to opine on the merits of his favorite things, antisemitism, white supremacy, and David Duke. His fans, albeit by a tiny part of humanity, admire Duke, and the rest of humankind reviles him, likely to similar degrees. Duke’s photo is on the box of racist Cheerios.
Duke was born in Oklahoma in 1950 and attended Louisiana State University (LSU), where he started his leadership in racism. At LSU, Duke founded the White Youth Alliance, a group affiliated with the neo-Nazi National Socialist White People’s Party. At the time, Duke connected his ideologies to Nazi symbolism, wearing a Nazi uniform to protest a speech by attorney William Kunstler at Tulane University. Duke picketed the lecture wearing a Nazi brown shirt and a swastika armband while carrying a sign saying ‘Kunstler is a Communist-Jew’ and ‘Gas the Chicago 7’ (well-known anti-war activists).
Duke was the foremost leader in the Klan resurgence in the 1970s but sported a new tack by influencing followers and colleagues to distance themselves from Nazi and Klan uniforms and insignia and soften their presentation away from genocide and eugenics and toward advocacy for the white and Christian white race.
Duke ran in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries, but his campaign had limited impact. Duke then won the presidential nomination of the Populist Party, where he received about 47,000 votes. In 1989 Duke won a special election to win a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, running in a highly conservative district on an anti-affirmative-action, anti-tax, and pro-law-and-order platform. Duke intentionally softened his racist rhetoric and glammed up by announcing his fervent Christianity.
Duke ran for the United States Senate in 1990 and the Louisiana governorship in 1991. However, Duke’s brand was so toxic that local and national Republicans endorsed his Democratic opponents. Duke’s 1992 campaign for the Republican second presidential nomination campaign fizzled out with zero delegates.
Beginning in the mid-1990s with his career at a political dead end, Duke spent much time in Europe; spending stretches of time in Russia, Ukraine, Italy, and Austria. Duke promoted his ideas among a robust community of bigots of all kinds.
Duke pleaded guilty in 2002 to filing a false tax return and mail fraud. Duke represented to supporters that he was in danger of losing his home and savings and received money from them to remedy his condition. However, federal prosecutors charged that he sold his house for a profit during that period, held numerous investment accounts, and gambled away much of the contributions at casinos in Mississippi, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas. Duke spent 15 months in federal prison in Big Spring, Texas.
In 2002, Duke received an honorary doctorate from the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP) in Ukraine, and three years later completed the doctoral program gaining a Ph.D. in History, titling his doctoral dissertation ‘Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism.’ During his time at MAUP, Duke lectured on history, international relations, and ‘Zionist influence in the United States.’
The dream of the alt-right and white nationalists of all types is a fortress-like alliance between white nations and then cleansing by whatever means necessary undesirable ethnic and racial minorities. White nationalists, militias, Neo-Nazis, Aryan Nation people, and other unsavory populations share beliefs, connections, and strategies. Leaders learn from one another and refine approaches and messaging.
Another formative figure in white nationalism, Steve Bannon, took a few pages from Duke’s playbook to recreate himself late life. Bannon created a fable of success, misrepresented his tangential involvement in other people’s work, and created an erroneous impression of wealth. Bannon, a human lamprey, finally successfully attached himself to a successful host, Donald Trump, and proceeded to monetize his fame.
Like Duke, Bannon allegedly embezzled from his followers. The United States charged Bannon for his role in defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with a xenophobic online crowdfunding campaign known as ‘We Build the Wall’ that raised more than $25 million. While it is a legal crime to defraud under these circumstances, the morality of stealing cash donated by bigots and xenophobes to build a wall to mitigate illegal immigration by people of color is debatable.
Akin to Duke, Bannon also pivoted to Europe, where a hotbed of right-wing nationalist and racist groups seethe in white fragility and perceived persecution. Bannon spoke at the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy national rally and established an alleged white nationalist ‘think tank’ called the Movement. Like Duke, Bannon appears to be part sideshow barker, partly used car salesperson, and part zealot.
Recently William Burke sued Duke and eight others in federal court for their role in fomenting violence at the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Duke paid $5,000 so that Burke would drop him from the lawsuit, although Duke made no admission of liability.
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube banned Duke in 2020 and other white nationalist leaders, but that has not and likely will not stop him. Duke has recently added to his acting range by delving into election fraud and Jeffrey Epstein conspiracy theories with an antisemitic spin. Duke’s clickbait postings undermine his claims of intellectual and philosophic underpinning to his views and point more to the huckster finding.
Regardless, Duke, at age 71, remains a leader in white nationalist and racist movements, and is its most articulate spokesperson. Duke is youthful and savvy to the ins and outs of media and the Internet and will be around another 20 years or longer, perhaps doddering into a senile remnant of himself like Pat Robertson.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, ‘hell is other people.’ and David Duke brings this passage to mind.
The American empire took its eyes off its backyard for a couple of decades, more interested in adventures in the Middle East than anything else, but now has turned its attention back to Latin America. The United States has chosen a fortuitous time for re-entry into this small Latin American republic as it just elected its first conservative president, Guillermo Lassos, in over 20 years. Can Lasso play the international interests against one another to the benefit of Ecuador, or is he simply more intent on looting Ecuador?
Fast social, governmental, and economic facts about Ecuador:
Ecuador has a wide variety of climatic conditions due to its mountainous interior and associated highlands. Climate is tropical along the coast, becoming cooler inland at higher elevations, and tropical in Amazonian jungle lowlands. With a height of about 20,500 feet, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador but only the 39th highest peak in the Andes. Chimborazo is a double volcano composed of one volcanic edifice on top of another.
Ecuador just elected a conservative president, Guillermo Lasso, and he took office in May 2021. A perennial office seeker, Lasso parlayed many promises to an electorate consumed by an economic crisis due to COVID. The 65-year-old defeated left-wing rival Andrés Arauz in an election in April 2021. Lasso promised to attract more investment to the oil sector and improve the economy through deregulation. Lasso, Ecuador’s first conservative president more than 20 years broke a string of populist leaders.
Clues to Lasso’s character, aside from his accumulation of massive wealth, include his extreme social conservatism; for instance, he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and is a devout adherent to Opus Dei, an orthodox Roman Catholic sect whose most famous adherent is Mel Gibson. In addition, Lasso says he is an enemy of Cuban-style socialism and, of course, appointed a neoliberal cabinet with close ties to the business community. The resultant formal plans feature governmental deregulation.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism for their work on the Panama Papers investigation. The investigation exposed the ultra-rich and their henchmen who use offshore companies to facilitate bribery, arms deals, tax evasion, financial fraud, and drug trafficking.
The Panama Papers include a great deal of exciting information on Lasso, casting into some doubt his account of his net worth and sources of his actual wealth. In 2011, before his first presidential campaign, Lasso created GLM Management Trust in Ecuador to hold his assets, which included a 40% share of Corporation MultiBG, the majority owner of Lasso’s former employer. Lasso had led the bank for 20 years prior to his political career and represented he had come to great wealth through legitimate means. Third-party sources estimate Lasso’s net worth as much as $50 million.
The Pandora Papers show that Lasso has ties to 10 offshore companies and trusts in Panama, South Dakota, and Delaware. Whether Lasso aspired to the office to loot Ecuador or has pursued office for altruistic reasons is unknown.
China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Chinese President Xi launched in 2013, involves the finance and management of infrastructure development projects worldwide. China has collaborated with more than 100 countries in BRI projects like railways, ports, and highways. China’s interests in Latin America include natural resource access on favorable terms and diplomatic leverage, particularly in the United Nations, although there are possible military ambitions.
A recent Chinese project in Quintuco, Argentina, illustrates this. The Chinese government-financed and built a $50 million satellite-and-space mission control center, including a 50-year, rent-free lease on the land. Since construction, the Chinese military has run the site. The primary reason for the project is to support China’s planned moon landing. So naturally, such projects trip alarms in Western countries, and the powers of imperialist capitalism are facing off against the international communist conspiracy in another tawdry cold war redux.
Ecuador borrowed about $5 billion from China to finance several major infrastructural projects, including hydroelectric dams. These projects began when oil prices were high, but the collapse in world oil prices during COVID caused a financial crisis.
China’s need for copper, at about 12.7 metric tons per year, makes it the world’s largest consumer at 53 percent of global demand. Copper is a strategic metal as it is integral to construction, technology, and energy. China has focused on Latin America because the region holds 20.7 million tons of copper reserves, an amount that is about 70 percent of the copper located in Chinese territory.
China has been making mining investments to alternative sources in Latin America, including Peru, which has 17 million tons in known copper reserves; Bolivia, which has about 0.3 million tons; and Ecuador, which has 3.5 million tons. Chinese mining operations in Ecuador prompted a great deal of local protest, especially from indigenous peoples, but that did not stop establishing two Chinese-owned copper mines. Ecuador made its first export of 22,000 tons of copper concentrate in early 2020 from the Mirador mining project. Other Chinese mining projects include a gold mine.
Extractive industries, including petroleum and mining, are the highest polluting sectors, displace indigenous populations, leave behind little in the way of wealth, and typically leave toxic wastelands and misery behind.
The Chinese-financed and managed Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric facility was Ecuador's most significant energy project. Located in the Amazon Basin, 60 miles east of Ecuador’s capital Quito between the provinces of Napo and Sucumbíos, the dam offers a warning tale. China’s loans require Ecuador to turn over 80% of oil exports for at least five years as payment. In addition, the $1.7 billion loans from the Chinese Export-Import Bank to build the dam alone cost Ecuador $125 million a year in interest payments alone.
Ecuador contracted over $20 billion in Chinese loans since 2010 and looked for international help to buy that Chinese debt. As a result, in February 2019, Ecuador accepted a $10.2 billion bailout package from international financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
To fight back against the BRI and resultant Chinese expansion, the United States and its G7 partners formulated a concept called Build Back Better World: An Affirmative Initiative for Meeting the Tremendous Infrastructure Needs of Low- and Middle-Income Countries, also known as B3W. B3W will be global and focused on financing various infrastructure projects in low-income countries using lending agencies such as the Development Finance Corporation, USAID, EXIM, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the United States Trade and Development Agency, and affiliate bodies.
During a recent visit to Ecuador, members of the B3W United States delegation met with Lasso and announced a $150 million loan to Banco de la Produción to finance small- and medium-sized enterprises that allege to promote gender equity and inclusion; have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are enabling green development projects.
The United States party line is to portray China’s loans to developing nations as predatory. According to the script, these loans aim to create a ‘debt trap’ and leave those debtors at the mercy of a ‘single authoritarian country.’ Evidence to support these claims is hard to find. China only holds 10% of Ecuador’s total external debt, but the United States wishes to make that the focus of attention.
Over the last six months of 2020, China agreed to put loan payments on hold until 2022. This concession includes delays on repayment of the $474 million loan to China’s ExIM Bank and a $417 million loan to the China Development Bank. However, neither the International Monetary Fund nor other Western banks have been as generous as Chinese funding sources.
Lasso has a mixed record, so his administration's outcome is difficult to predict. He has significant political opposition both in a Congress dominated by the left and among civil-society groups such as the indigenous movement. Moreover, Ecuador has politically volatile, with progressive and socialist inclinations, so Lasso’s time in office may be short-lived. Regardless, what Ecuador needs to thrive is the deft management of the competing international interests and careful fostering of the economy towards a more prosperous future.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.