Does record-breaking military movie signal an assertive China?

By Qiu Zhibo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/8 20:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Recently, a blockbuster movie has grabbed headlines in China, from newspapers to social media. Everyone is talking about Wolf Warriors 2, one of China's first military action movies. This Monday, the movie set a new record in China's box office history with total sales of 3.4 billion yuan ($507 million). The movie is still taking in about 200 million yuan each day. Wu Jing, a kung fu movie star and former national martial arts champion, directed, wrote and starred in the film.

The movie is a breakthrough. First, Chinese-made patriotic military movies have not been a popular genre among young people recently. No one including the director himself would have predicted that the film would find such box office success. Second, this movie is the first of its kind to be set outside Chinese borders. It features a former special forces soldier rescuing Chinese people from the hands of Western mercenaries in a conflict zone in Africa.

Some commentators from abroad regard Wolf Warriors 2 as a pure patriotic and nationalist movie indicative of an assertive and aggressive China.

Is it simple patriotic propaganda? The answer is clearly no. It is easy and stereotyped thinking to simply label this movie as public propaganda, but doing so will miss important political implications.

This movie is not top-down didactic, patriotic propaganda by the government. On the contrary, it is a purely commercial movie, rather than a state-initiated propaganda movie. The movie was entirely funded by private investment, a large portion by director and leading actor Wu Jing himself. He found raising the money tough, and many private investors and entertainment celebrities turned down a chance to invest. The director had to mortgage his house to finish the film.

However, to everyone's surprise, this movie broke all the records in China's movie history. It is more of a bottom-up approach, as the movie fed a public appetite and met their desire to see a confident and strong Chinese military force which could not only safeguard China's national borders, but also successfully protect the safety and interests of Chinese people abroad. The latter is something new, but an urgent need for Chinese citizens, as China is increasing its presence abroad, from overseas investment to education to tourism.

This military action movie has important political implications for China's foreign policy and security policy.

Prior to this movie, for the Chinese public, the functions of the Chinese army were constrained within Chinese borders, from disaster rescues to domestic security. This movie added another dimension to the public's perception of China' military. It showed in pictures and with emotions an unfamiliar and unrecognized fact that Chinese soldiers are shouldering more responsibility to safeguard the safety of Chinese citizens abroad. Part of this movie is based on real stories, when the Chinese embassies and navy evacuated Chinese nationals in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and other conflict zones. 

Following the success of this movie, Chinese people will support more defensive military actions conducted by the Chinese army abroad. Its huge profits and political success will lure investment in more action movies with similar themes. As a result, these cultural products will further enhance public expectations and support for China's military actions abroad, and a more active role for China in the international community as a responsible shareholder.

But is it indicative that China will become more assertive and aggressive? Or that China is ambitious to replace the US and become the next superhero to save the world? The answer is again no.

For observers who have preconceptions, it is hard to recognize and accept that the military actions of the Chinese soldiers that this movie promoted are defensive in nature. The heroes are not fighting to gain something for themselves, or intervening in local conflicts to attack the bad guys. The guidance for the Chinese army at home and abroad is to limit gunfire.

The leading character Leng Feng was a former special forces member. He did not receive any weapons from the Chinese navy, which was sent to evacuate Chinese nationals. A Navy commander in the film repeatedly emphasized that China could not send any troops into the war zone without UN authorization. The movie also raised a thought-provoking question, as Leng decided not only to rescue Chinese but also local African people and bring them to safety zones. The inclusiveness and equality the film promoted is beyond the narrow concept of nationalism.

When Leng and the people he has rescued pass a battlefield on their way to the port in the climax of the movie, Leng holds up a Chinese flag and asks people to throw away their guns. This shows a strong anti-war, anti-violence sentiment that would appeal to the Chinese public. The purpose of the action is to protect and rescue people, not to attack the enemy. This is in sharp contrast to the role and image of Western mercenaries in the film. While the West brings only destruction and war, China brings construction and trade.

The film is also not a simple replication of a Hollywood superhero movie. The director indeed hired the Captain America: Civil War production team for combat scenes and stunts. Many viewers said the movie is of Hollywood quality. But the purpose was not to produce another Hollywood movie, but an enthusiastic Chinese movie which could appeal to a Chinese audience and echo Chinese culture and values.

The director certainly adds creativity with the underwater fight, jeep racing and tank scenes. In that regard, foreign technology is one of the tools, not the result. The dedication and efforts of the director earned respect and support from Chinese viewers.

To understand this movie, we need to understand that ordinary Chinese people expect and support a strong Chinese military presence to offer protection and rescue when they are abroad. This urgent need is in line with the Chinese government's increasing commitment to safeguard security and peace as a responsible power in the international community.

The author is an independent researcher and political consultant. Previously, she worked at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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