Making China Great Again
By Evan Osnos / January 8, 2018/ The New Yorker
When the Chinese action movie “Wolf Warrior II” arrived in theatres, in July, it looked like a standard shoot-’em-up, with a lonesome hero and frequent explosions. Within two weeks, however, “Wolf Warrior II” had become the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time. Some crowds gave it standing ovations; others sang the national anthem. In October, China selected it as its official entry in the foreign-language category of the Academy Awards.
The hero, Leng Feng, played by the action star Wu Jing (who also directed the film), is a veteran of the “wolf warriors,” special forces of the People’s Liberation Army. In retirement, he works as a guard in a fictional African country, on the frontier of China’s ventures abroad. A rebel army, backed by Western mercenaries, attempts to seize power, and the country is engulfed in civil war. Leng shepherds civilians to the gates of the Chinese Embassy, where the Ambassador wades into the battle and declares, “Stand down! We are Chinese! China and Africa are friends.” The rebels hold their fire, and survivors are spirited to safety aboard a Chinese battleship.
Leng rescues an American doctor, who tells him that the Marines will come to their aid. “But where are they now?” he asks her. She calls the American consulate and gets a recorded message: “Unfortunately, we are closed.” In the final battle, a villain, played by the American actor Frank Grillo, tells Leng, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.” Leng beats the villain to death and replies, “That was fucking history.” The film closes with the image of a Chinese passport and the words “Don’t give up if you run into danger abroad. Please remember, a strong motherland will always have your back!”
When I moved to Beijing, in 2005, little of that story would have made sense to a Chinese audience. With doses of invention and schmalz, the movie draws on recent events. In 2015, China’s Navy conducted its first international evacuation, rescuing civilians from fighting in Yemen; last year, China opened its first overseas military base, in Djibouti. There has been a deeper development as well. For decades, Chinese nationalism revolved around victimhood: the bitter legacy of invasion and imperialism, and the memory of a China so weak that, at the end of the nineteenth century, the philosopher Liang Qichao called his country “the sick man of Asia.” “Wolf Warrior II” captures a new, muscular iteration of China’s self-narrative, much as Rambo’s heroics expressed the swagger of the Reagan era.
Recently, I met Wu Jing in Los Angeles, where he was promoting the movie in advance of the Academy Awards. Wu is forty-three, with short, spiky hair, a strong jaw, and an air of prickly bravado. He was on crutches, the result of “jumping off too many buildings,” he told me, in Chinese. (He speaks little English.) “In the past, all of our movies were about, say, the Opium Wars—how other countries waged war against China,” he said. “But Chinese people have always wanted to see that our country could, one day, have the power to protect its own people and contribute to peace in the world.”
As a favored son of China, celebrated by the state, Wu doesn’t complain about censorship and propaganda. He went on, “Although we’re not living in a peaceful time, we live in a peaceful country. I don’t think we should be spending much energy thinking about negative aspects that would make us unhappy. Cherish this moment!”
China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one. Ever since the Second World War, the United States has advocated an international order based on a free press and judiciary, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment. It planted those ideas in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and spread them with alliances around the world. In March, 1959, President Eisenhower argued that America’s authority could not rest on military power alone. “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress,” he said. “It is not the goal of the American people that the United States should be the richest nation in the graveyard of history.”
Under the banner of “America First,” President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad. On his third day in office, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation trade deal designed by the United States as a counterweight to a rising China. To allies in Asia, the withdrawal damaged America’s credibility. “You won’t be able to see that overnight,” Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, told me, at an event in Washington. “It’s like when you draw a red line and then you don’t take it seriously. Was there pain? You didn’t see it, but I’m quite sure there’s an impact.” Read more…