Save Matt Damon! or, Entertainment Content as Political Commentary in China

Telling political commentary is buried in unlikely places on the Chinese Internet.  Scandals about high-ranking officials and popular criticism of the government are disguised as entertainment gossip. The best proof of the potential for political change found in such gossip is in the goofy admissions from Chinese Internet companies that “aliens have abducted the webpage you’re trying to access”:




The fact that the companies are not content with just making the content disappear, but want to point fingers to the censors that make them do it, however subtly, speaks volumes. One of the most recent targets of this type of veiled political commentary is the movie “Great Wall” starring Matt Damon, due out February 2017.

Here is a quick sum-up of what the most upvoted Chinese users of (Goodreads and Imdb rolled into one), have to say about the “Great Wall”:

“So spineless Hollywood was knocked to its knees with cold hard Chinese cash – I can accept that. But why should our very own Matt Damon get dragged into this muck? Save him!”

“Director Zhang Yimou has been dead a long time already.”

“Okay, fine, Jing Tian’s acting is world-class —— now will you please drop the gun?”

Waving the said gun, the Chinese Communist Party wants to keep its image as the sage leader of a powerful and prosperous country front and center. The Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Amazon were chided by the censors recently.  Propaganda-approved movies pushing the Party’s message often received rock bottom scores from a jeering public. The authorities ordered the Internet firms hosting movie content to stop the nosebleed of its disgraced propaganda. How? By messing with user feedback on movies. The companies may delete unfavorable reviews, or even stop users from voting on a movie at all.

So let us  take a look to see how this has benefitted the Great Wall, a Chinese-Hollywood collaboration. It’s too bad that the steamy innuendos which sell movies so well are, in this case, about the movie but not in it. Jing Tian, the female lead of “Great Wall,” purportedly got the role through high-level connections within the Chinese system.  Ms. Tian is a great mystery. Of a belabored, heavy-duty beauty, with eyes likely surgically enlarged to achieve the terror-stricken stare of silent-film era stars, Jing has starred in a series of box office and critical low-ballers that hemorrhaged eye-popping sums of money. She acts about as well as a rock, hence the sarcasm of the last Chinese user review quoted above.

The man who foots Jing’s bill feeds the gossip mill that erodes the government’s legitimacy. There is a list of four names in circulation. A deputy Vice Minister of Propaganda? One of the direct descendants of the men who founded People’s Republic of China on a platform of banning official privilege? The contrast between the image of Xi’s Party as austere, all-correct and faithful, and such blatant patronage and corruption in China’s state-dominated movie industry, is not lost on the millions of gossip-news readers. This is the underside and bottom-up part of China’s anti-corruption campaign, and it’s likely to last long after Xi puts away the scalps of his arch-enemies.

Audience rejection of Party propaganda also comes out strong in their criticism of Director Zhang Yimou. Viewers feel a particular disappointment in Zhang, something akin to seeing Spike Lee morph into an unctuous Leni Riefenstahl chasing greenbacks. Zhang, a one-time Gold Lion winner, spent his more recent movies trumpeting that the people of China require benevolent despotism to save them from their own weakness and folly. Liberal Chinese mourn the one-time Gold Lion winner Zhang, whose courageous exploration of the Party’s misrule, including the Cultural Revolution, was banned (“To Live”).

Little surprise, then, that “Great Wall” is struggling with a 50% rating on the Chinese IMDB Douban (worse than 93% of all fantasy movies), despite a surge of paid boosters who attack the film’s detractors for “kissing the foreigners’ ass” and “sneering condescension at their own culture.” (Both the government and businesses in China are adroit manipulators of culture wars – sounds familiar?) Hollywood merely put the finishing touches on this disaster, spitting out a predictable script “with as many plot holes as monsters,” to quote another disdainful user review.

I would like to think there is a moral here. Keep that 50% rating in mind when debating whether to shell out another $39 bucks for your next movie outing. Follow the Chinese  people’s advice and skip the “Great Wall.” But by all means let us keep watching the political fireworks  that come out of China’s online gossip mill. It signals public dissatisfaction with Xi’s government that belies its 90% poll ratings. 

Post script: Xi’s government shut down a number of entertainment accounts on Chinese social media in June 2017. The official reasons given include “vulgarity” and the “hyping of the relationships and private lives of stars.”  A telling protest letter from a reader to a Hong Kong publication writes: “Frankly, the truth is that in China, political and entertainment news rub shoulders.”

The Knowing Ducks of Spring: How to tell when China is Ready to Compete with Hollywood

琅琊榜 黄金分割

People associated with China’s film industry recently declaimed on the CBS program 60-Minutes that the Chinese are poised to give Hollywood a run for its money. Rob Cain of Bloomberg was quite emphatic as to why not. And I wholeheartedly agree with him.

In this I am taking my cue from China’s own tough-love critics, whose opinion I figure must be weighty on this subject. Ranging from Chen Danqing, an artist and arbiter of culture, to Ran Yunfei, a public intellectual harassed by authorities, they all agree that cultural China is but a shadow of its former self. They feel that the ravages of the country’s recent past, such as the Cultural Revolution, left China adrift, severed from much of its heritage and uncertain of its future. You can’t tell powerful stories when you don’t know who you are or where you might be.

China is, therefore, in a long cultural convalescence, and in such straits poses no threat to Hollywood’s global dominance. By the same token, however, healing may eventually usher in a renaissance.

The great Song-dynasty renaissance man, Su Dongpo (1037-1101), writes that “When warm once again the tides of spring grow/The ducks are always the first ones to know.” Here are two spheres of Chinese cultural life to watch, as Su’s proverbial ducks, for the arrival of that cultural renewal. Now, it is inevitable that observers will vehemently differ on whether backsliding or leapfrogging is gaining the upper hand. There will be inexhaustible opportunities to track eye-popping developments on the ground and to wrangle over what they mean. That will be part of the fun.

The Chinese Language. Chinese is slowly recovering from the Maoist style of writing and speaking. Li Tuo, a literary critic, pointed out in 1997 that the language of propaganda and revolution held back modern Chinese. The standardized Maospeak outlawed, and virtually wiped modern Chinese clean, of classical Chinese.

To understand what this means, imagine an English with the widest part of its Saxon and Latinate vocabulary surgically removed. Then ponder how you can grapple with that state of things, knowing only a few odds and ends from your entire literary past that political leaders, the government press and a couple of lionized writers happened to cite. That’s what the Chinese are up against.

Restoring and regrowing Chinese language and culture is an uphill climb. Still, Hollywood should not get too comfortable. For the last several years, a section of Chinese society has honored their past by waxing nostalgic for the culture of the Republican era that immediately preceded Communist rule. For example, Mu Xin, a recently discovered writer’s writer, is beloved of young hip readers as representative of “what Chinese literature would have looked like, had it not been devastated after 1949.” Readers and writers are slowly reforging the broken link to their rich birthright.

Chinese Dramas and Their Critics. While the majority of Chinese audience put up with what domestically produced movie and TV theatricals censors allow them to see, an irrepressible minority have made a wildly popular cottage industry out of ripping into government-approved content that offend them as insults to their IQ. Barrages of jokes and quips greet trite fare restricted to a few categories:

a. Imperial court intrigue emphasizing the sagacity of rulers and the grandeur of Chinese empires;

b. The 101th rehashing of myths on how underground tunnels and airplane-felling pistol shots from Communist guerrillas beat back the Japanese invasion in WWII;

c. Shoddy rom-coms slovenly modeled on Japanese and Korean originals, adapted to Chinese tastes with endless catfights between daughter- and mother-in-law.

Stuff that will not shake Hollywood to its foundations any time soon. Having said that, watch out for the gush of irreverent creativity from their critics: theirs is an outstanding testament to the Chinese imagination and its potential for storytelling. 

Given how formidable that creativity would be if harnessed the right way, just like the country did in the manufacture of more tangible things, China may yet catch up with light-year speed. Nirvana in Fire, a popular 55-episode drama that was seen a total of 3.5 billion times on Chinese streaming platforms as of October 2015, is one recent breakthrough that for once has the homegrown critics applauding. This historical fantasy differs in many regards from mainstream fare. A re-conceived Count of Monte Cristo, it sports a moral backbone, where other censor-sanctioned drama veer between saintly stereotypes (WWII) and nihilistic cynicism (court intrigue). It boasts strong female characters whose horizons extend beyond the love of men. Its treatment of historical details is precise and intimate, going beyond professional polish to that reforging of links to Chinese heritage so vital to China’s renaissance. All this result in a reticent aesthetics rooted in the high tradition of Chinese painting and poetry. The camerawork, costumes and set design are of an understated beauty in a quintessentially Chinese way that has won over viewers both old and young.

In a word, I think we would do well to look to Chinese civil society in order to figure out when their creative springtime is at hand. Until then, Hollywood can try to stay ahead of the game by learning from the worthiest Chinese endeavors. For Hollywood, like China, has to endlessly recreate itself to stay true to its dreams. In that there is no zero-sum game.