Behold! China to Your Rescue: Patriotism, Power and Propaganda in Chinese Motion Pictures

Aakriti Sethi
March 18, 2019
In the distant future, when the sun starts perishing and Earth would be struggling to survive, the China led international space coalition would be at the forefront in the battle for the existence of mankind. This interesting yet debatable narrative in the February released Chinese movie “the Wandering Earth (TWE)” has captured the attention of its domestic audiences and also international commentators, touted to be the first big budget Chinese sci-fi movie, adapted from the novel of the same name by the Hugo award winning novelist Liu Cixin, it presents a world where American leadership would be insignificant. The movie has gained widespread critical praise by the Chinese public and has broken all kinds of records. The release of this movie could not have been more perfect, overlapping with the Chinese space program’s successful landing of Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a feat yet to be achieved by any other nation. In a matter of weeks, the movie has reserved its spot in the worldwide box office top 10 of 2019, managing to collect an overall $679.3 million as of March.

The Chinese market has usually been critical for Hollywood releases, as seen in the past with the collections of Avengers: Infinity War, Harry Potter movies, or Disney movies. But the indigenous production of TWE, with state of the art visual aesthetics and gripping storyline has opened boundless avenues for Chinese motion pictures. The movie has got special appreciation from the nation’s top government authorities. Wang Xiaohui, the director of Film Bureau and the executive deputy head of Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China under Communist Party’s Propaganda Department stated that TWE “not only shows the collectivism, patriotism and family love rooted in traditional Chinese culture, but also manifests the Chinese people’s non-utilitarian, cosmopolitan and cooperative spirit”.

The celebratory factor of this release is deeply rooted in the larger than life projection of Chinese power, reflecting the current geopolitical trajectory and growing ambitions of Beijing. The movie gives visuals to a “China led world order”, which has usually been a concept trapped in various political rhetoric and op-eds. TWE has taken the trend of nationalism instilling films to the next level. Before this, Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) and Operation Red Sea (2018) showcased bankability and public appreciation. These movies have given the Chinese public their own “alpha patriotic male leads”, usually abundant in Hollywood movies. Such films bring the military might alive on the big screen, and have become effective means of propaganda. Though the cinematic tone of TWE and movies like Wolf Warrior 2 differ i.e. the former highlights collective resolve, the latter projected a “lone-wolf phenomenon”, and both work towards arousing national pride.

As China has evolved over the years, so have its movies. The history of Chinese military movies can be divided into three sections- 17 year movies (1949-1969), end of 1980s and late 1990s. The Chinese military cinema has evolved next to the country’s progress and evolving political climate. From “17 year movies” revolving around a small village during the Sino-Japanese rivalry, to the end of 1980’s cinema that lauded the role of national leaders during socio-politically turbulent times, and finally to the current cinema that highlights China’s grandiose national power; these three cinematic phases reflect the historical journey the nation took to reach to present day.

Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea revolve around military forces occupied in an overseas mission to safeguard Chinese nationals. Such “state supervised patriotism” has found acceptance in the public domain. The CCP and the PLA being the vanguards of peace at home and abroad has been ably legitimized by such movies. But the Chinese propaganda can no longer be understood as an isolated concept that works exclusively top-down and practiced by installing severe censorship rules that thwart the freedom of speech. In Xiomei Chen’s book “Staging Chinese Revolution: Theater, Film and the Afterlives of Propaganda”, propaganda “can be studied as a complex, dialogic and dialectical process in which multiple voices and opposing views collide, negotiate and compromise in forming what looks like a mainstream ideology- and indeed functions as such- to legitimize the powerful state and its right to rule”.

The success of Chinese propaganda has occurred dually- with government’s generous financial investments in such ventures and domestic audience’s willful approval of such patriotic stories, signaled by big collections. In the age of commercialization, social media and millennial awareness, Chinese propaganda has become layered and interactive, underlining the importance of intelligent packaging yet hard hitting messages. Historically, CCP’s practice of blending propaganda, ideology and arts has been a distinctive tool to spread its message across masses. The combined interaction of a strong state control system, enthusiastic film community, changing trends, growing international status and embracive domestic audience has changed Chinese propaganda.

TWE is a positive example of China’s soft power. The appreciation for it surpassed the Chinese boundaries, with Netflix acquiring the rights of the movie for a whooping $565 million dollars, making it accessible for the international audiences. The movie’s developed CGI effects and skillfully crafted pre-production value makes it at par with any Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster. Even though there are tons of inspiration from the Californian counterpart, the Wandering Earth presents a “non-West” perspective of the future. This movie bravely sits in the middle of brewing international debates over an “America v/s China led world order” paralleling the prickly Sino-US ties. With no mention of America’s NASA in a sci-fi apocalyptic movie, Russia-China brotherhood at the international space station and a proactive “Chinese-Australian” character, the movie paints an animated “China imagined” world.

The power of cinema has been at the heart of CCP’s new propaganda schemes. The government has instructed its filmmakers to develop the nation into a “strong film power” like the US by 2035. In a bid to further China’s soft power prowess, filmmakers are briefed to produce 100 movies a year that earn roughly $15 million dollars. The process of transforming foreign influence of Chinese cinema has been greatly realized but has a long way to go. In this light, movies like TWE signal towards a prosperous future for Chinese movies. The seamless infusion of national pride with high budget aesthetics has produced a win-win formula for new age Chinese propagandists. Even though the possibility of TWE winning an Oscar or BAFTA is slim, its ability to generate global buzz has cemented its legacy as a Chinese modern classic.

*** The author is currently a PhD Student at Center for Canadian, United States and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She acquired her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science honors from Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University. For her post graduation studies, she pursued Masters of Arts in Geopolitics and International Relations from Manipal University, Karnataka. She later worked as a research intern at the North America division of Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, IDSA, New Delhi. Her M.Phil is in United States Studies from Center for Canadian, United States and Latin American Studies, School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD at the same. Her areas of interests include US foreign policy, US domestic politics, US-Japan relations, US-China relations, Indo Pacific studies, UN issues and India’s foreign policy. ***