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New American movies aim at China's image

If Chinese President Jiang Zemin happens to turn on the television during his weeklong visit to the United States, he might be startled to see images of an American being brutalized by Chinese police, thrown in a Chinese jail and deprived of his civil rights in a Chinese courtroom.

Red Corner, a movie starring Richard Gere as an American businessman on trial in China for murder, is opening across the United States on Friday, and advertising for the thriller is everywhere.

But it isn't the only film with an anti-China message in American theaters this week. Seven Years in Tibet, the true story of an Austrian mountain climber and his friendship with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, is playing in theaters across the country. The film graphically depicts the bloody Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1950, as does Martin Scorsese's Kundun, another film about the now-exiled Tibetan leader, which opens Christmas Day.

"It's undeniable that there is an unfortunate search for new and enticing enemies in Hollywood. It often includes a racist element, a xenophobic element," says Orville Schell, an expert on China at the University of California at Berkeley. He is writing a book on the latest pro-Tibet, anti-China trend in popular culture. "But there is a real issue here: People sense that there is something amiss about the way China tends to treat its own people. Hollywood has tapped into this inchoate resentment, and that's what feeding into these movies."

Whether the trend is reflecting or feeding public opinion, China's image suffers in these portrayals. In a scene from Seven Years in Tibet, stern-faced Chinese generals coming to visit the Dalai Lama march deliberately through a mandala of sand painstakingly made in their honor. In MGM's Red Corner, the criticism of Chinese authorities is even more direct. "We're not going to pretend this is a new, cuddly Communist Chinese government we have here," said the film's star, Richard Gere, a pro-Tibetan activist, in interviews last week. "They haven't proven themselves yet."

All of this can hardly be expected to escape the notice of the Chinese president, and the timing appears to make some American officials uncomfortable.

During summit talks this week, U.S. and Chinese officials are focusing on things such as China's nuclear exports, the sale of nuclear reactors, trade issues and the status of Taiwan rather than the question of human rights.

"The Chinese if they are smart, they won't kick up undue dust" about the message coming from Hollywood, said Jonathan Pollack, a foreign policy expert at the Rand Corp.

But China is nothing if not sensitive about its portrayal abroad, and last year it threatened Disney with repercussions if the studio proceeded with Kundun. The entertainment giant went ahead but recently hired former secretary of state Henry Kissinger as an adviser on dealings with China.

Officials at the Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.