Nothing causes anxiety in America quite like China. The rise of this nation is perceived as our greatest threat in many critical places the US is used to dominating – economic power, military might, and technological leadership. It’s not a question of where China is today as much where it might be if the growth keeps up.
Yet for all of this, Richard Nixon’s observation in 1972 remains true – “China is not a threat.” To understand why it’s best to turn not to the policies and pronouncements of politicians but to popular culture. This is ultimate gauge of the most important resource of China and every other nation, the people.
On the surface, the huge summer hit “Wolf Warrior 2” may seem like everything we have to fear. Yet it shows exactly how China’s self identity and culture are evolving as much as their economy.
The movie is, to be blunt, a glorious mess like any action movie. The star is Wu Jing, playing People’s Liberation Army Special Forces, aka Wolf Warrior, soldier Leng Feng. The action careens through kung fu, improvised weapons, knives, guns, bigger guns, and finally tanks. Explosions are heavy and the plot is thin.
It was a monster success, grossing $870 million in China from audiences that could not stop cheering.
The portrayal of a Chinese soldier as a butt-kicking warrior, standing up to evil mercenaries from the US and Russia (the former played wonderfully by Frank Grillo) might give Americans reason to be concerned. Is this what Chinese audiences loved so much?
Yes, but it’s important to note what they are used to seeing and what is different here.
What most Americans do not seem to understand about China is that it sees itself as a victim. For about 100 years it was carved up by foreign powers, culminating with the genocide committed by the Japanese at the Rape of Nanjing and beyond. The once great empire was humiliated, and the result was devastation. Countless millions died, and the entire nation suffered horrifically.
This is what is commonly shown in their movies, too. For example, the excellent “Flowers of War” in 2011 (with Christian Bale as the American rogue turned hero) depicted Nanjing under the Japanese in a brutal, heart rendering pastiche of sacrifice.
Cultural victimhood defines China in ways which are impossible to describe. They have to be felt. That is why movies make a good way to depict this feeling.
Chinese foreign policy is based on historical victimhood in strange ways, primarily through the assertion that it must not happen again. They have just enough nuclear weapons to show the world that they have them. The People’s Liberation Army grew to a size large enough to give any potential invader pause. And opposition to the US is based almost entirely on the number of warships in Yellow Sea. It is a paranoia based on reality.
It is a multi-edged sword with consequences, of course. Like the defining identity of any large nation, there is a dichotomy at the heart of it. The suffering and victimization at the hands of the Cultural Revolution tends to be swept under the rug as it has been since the fall of the Soviet block showed the dangers of too much openness. While China has never had a true war of aggression, it has had pointless and entirely avoidable border wars with Russia, Vietnam, and India.
China can make victims, too. And that is the evolution of its national identity cheers so eagerly by the audiences of Wolf Warrior II.
The movie opens with Leng Feng reluctantly being kicked out of the army for killing a greedy developer who threatened to destroy a whole village. There are victims of the Chinese system itself! (note: the Communist Party is not mentioned at all) From there, he winds up in an African nation benefiting from Chinese benevolence that is falling apart. Rather than save just the Chinese, as he is told, he works to save Africans, too. When he can’t, he sends a cell phone video to the Chinese Navy off the coast who, tears in their eyes, resolutely fire missiles and give the butt-kicking Wolf Warrior the edge he needs to finish the job.
It culminates with him becoming a living Red Flag of China to lead everyone to safety.
What this movie is about is nothing less than a new definition of what it means to be Chinese. It is the evolution from victim to one who refuses to be a victim to a powerful people who defend victims everywhere. The victory of China is a victory over bullies and evil – not just for Chinese.
There are plenty of jokes about how useless America is. Not evil, useless.
Understanding China as a victim achieving power is not all that different from understanding a similar paranoia inherent in Russian foreign policy. The difference is both subtle and not. China can appear aggressive from the outside, at least to the extent that their motivation is not well understood. What is inherently different, however, is how it is evolving past the “never again” to something more universal.
Is China a threat? The short answer is that as a nation it wants to be secure more than anything. In unity there is strength, so the excesses of the Communist Party are easily overlooked to the extent that it is seen as a protector. But it is not out to conquer the world.
The cheering Chinese audiences loved Wolf Warrior 2 for the action, certainly. But the message that China was not only standing up, but standing up for a very important value was what made them really cheer. This generation are not victims. They are something else. Something which, with the right cooperation and partnership directing it away from paranoia, might be a truly beautiful thing.