Keanu Reeves is not only one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and has been for some time, but he is also regarded as one of the kindest and most down-to-earth figures in the industry. There are countless stories from fans and celebrities alike to support that this is not just some façade, not to mention a YouTube video from ten years ago where Reeves, who was unaware that he was being filmed, gave up his seat on a subway to a woman, which now has over 42 million views. Audiences adore him because he’s an everyman who just happens to be one of the most recognisable action stars ever.
China and its autocratic leader, Xi Jinping, on the other hand, are inclined to disagree with all of the above. In fact, due to Reeves’ recent appearance at a concert in New York organised at the request of the Dalai Lama, major Chinese streaming platforms Tencent Video and iQiyi have removed all of his movies, with the former removing at least 19 of his films according to most recent reports. Even internet searches of his name, be it in English or Chinese, yield no results.
This is hardly out of character for China. The country, whose population is estimated at 1.4 billion citizens, is still en-route to becoming the largest economy on earth and as such has become a vital market for Western business and investment, with cinema being no different. The Chinese government is all too aware of the West’s love of capitalism and won’t hesitate to flex its authoritarian muscles to pressure Western countries to play by their rules. There are countless examples, from an NBA executive who almost created an existential crisis in the league for supporting Hong Kong protesters, to John Cena being forced into issuing a public apology (in Mandarin, no less) for having the sheer audacity to suggest Taiwan is a country. President Xi is also famously thin-skinned, even going so far as to ban images of Winnie the Pooh from the internet in China after the striking physical similarities between him and the honey-loving bear went viral on social media.
The reason Reeves has China so hot around the collar boils down to its tentative claim to Tibet. In ways that are eerily similar to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1951 for what they called a “peaceful liberation”, but many in the West label it an annexation. The current Dalai Lama, who has been exiled to India since 1959, is perceived as a threat to China’s claims of legitimacy over Tibet, and as such the government instead recognises the 11th Panchen Lama as Tibet’s current spiritual leader. However, many agree he is no more than a puppet considering that the original 11th Panchen Lama was kidnapped in 1995 at the age of 6 and replaced by China.
It is easy to see, then, why the Chinese government has erased all traces of Reeves. While more should lead by his example and exercise their right to raise awareness to such a cause without fearing the international extension of China’s dictatorial impulses, it is nonetheless impossible to consider the ramifications it could have on Reeves’ career, and it is not without precedent.
As far back as 1993, Richard Gere, who is a noted activist and at the time was one of the biggest stars in the world, was presenting an award at the Oscars and used the platform to denounce China’s treatment of Tibet and its people. From there began a decline in demand for Gere, and the actor himself acknowledged in 2017 it stemmed from that fateful speech and China’s unwillingness to promote an actor who openly criticized its government.
The Chinese film market of today is now even larger, with studios staking even more of their box office returns on the country’s enormous population. There has been speculation here and there about Reeves joining the likes of the MCU or DCEU, as both franchises have a penchant for bringing in big names that resonate with audiences, and few do so more than him. However, so long as China continues to deny the actor’s very existence it is difficult to ever see him being offered any kind of a role from either franchise, as they stake a great deal of their box office success on China. It remains to be seen what will happen when the latest in one of Reeves’ most revered franchises, John Wick: Chapter 4, releases in May, and how it may affect its performance in China. Of course, that’s if the government even allows its release to begin with.
This is not just limited to franchise roles either. Any studio relying on China’s box office as an important part of their profits for a big budget production will have to consider Reeves’ financial liability in their bottom line. It is for this reason that Richard Gere shifted to more independent productions as his career went on.
It remains to be seen what the lasting impact of China’s effective cancellation of Keanu Reeves will be, and while he has yet to respond since these developments, if the actor has proven anything it’s that he is not the type of person who betrays his own ethics for the sake of a paycheck.