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China's Rise: The Kung Fu Film Version

Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011

As a fundamental part of what I consider to be my parental duties, I've been broadening my son's already healthy exposure to kung fu movies over the past few months. And I'm repeatedly struck by how many insights they offer into the formative folklore that animates modern-day China. Like Westerns for America, they are heavy in caricatures and historic inaccuracies. But they also reflect, at times crudely and at others quite elegantly, Chinese culture's self-image and its view of the "other."

So as much as I found last week's bilateral summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao dramatically overblown -- both are coming off lousy years, and neither exercises as much influence over policy outcomes as the media coverage suggests -- I thought the calm after the storm would be a good time to offer up what I think of as the Kung Fu Film Version of China's Rise.

First up is the Bruce Lee classic, "Fists of Fury," which, for anyone unfamiliar with China's colonial past, gives a good idea of the degree to which the humiliations of the foreign concession period remain present in the modern collective imagination. In the film, the Japanese function as the hated occupier/oppressor in concession-period Shanghai. But the nature of the concession arrangement was such that it left plenty of resentment to go around. Unlike other countries, which experienced the oppression and humiliation of colonial occupation at the hands of one Western colonial power, China was partially partitioned among them all. What's more, its history of being occupied predates Western colonialism, with classics like "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" already dealing with the Manchu occupation. Many Americans don't realize that China's insistence on sovereignty and the ability to defend it -- i.e., its current military modernization program -- is driven not just by a desire to avoid accountability on its human rights record, but also by a centuries-long chip on its shoulder.

Similar themes are treated in Jet Li's "Once Upon a Time in China," with the bad guy in this case represented by an American entrepreneur engaged in what amounts to human-trafficking of Chinese laborers for the construction of the railroads. The movie obliquely references the Chinese contribution to and underlying resentment of America's own rise. But its major theme is the country's introduction to modernism, and the complicated relationship that results. Jet Li's character is both a kung fu master and a practitioner of classical Chinese medicine, and the film protrays the sophistication of both. Nevertheless, the disdain with which Li initially greets such modern artefacts as the camera and the pants suit, brought back to China by Westernized Chinese, soon gives way to curiosity. By film's end, though Li emerges victorious, he is confronted with the tragic conclusion that the virtuosity of Chinese culture is no match for the brute force of Western guns. The solution -- as reflected by the contemporary Chinese approach to modernization but especially to military modernization -- is the famous "Chinese characteristics": the power of modern technology grafted onto the principles of classical Chinese strategic thinking. So area denial instead of forward positioning, and minimal nuclear deterrence instead of massive arsenals.

The third film that struck me as being very relevant these days is "Hero," also with Jet Li. Besides a gripping story structure and fight scenes that integrate the fantastic without indulging in the cartoonish (the flaw that most purists will find with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), the film also illustrates Chinese conceptions of the trade-off between freedom and stability, and the delicate balance between concentrated power and tyranny. I won't go into any more detail, because it really is a film where the first viewing should be without spoilers, but suffice it to say that it reinforces a theme that Thomas P.M. Barnett frequently references -- namely, that China will democratize on China's schedule, not on America's.

Finally, there's John Woo's recent magnum opus,"Red Cliff," whose French title is the more-accurate, "The Three Kingdoms." I wrote about it when I first saw it in the theater almost two years ago, in the context of American hubris in Iraq. It's essentially the story of how asymmetric tactics and classical strategies defeat a massively superior force equipped with more advanced firepower. At the time, I argued that it was a juxtaposition of America, post-Iraq, to America, pre-Iraq: the urge to empire against the defense of liberty. But my thinking today is that it reflects an unexplored alternative narrative to China's rise. The dominant narrative is that China's rise represents the emergence of a rival to the U.S. for global hegemony in the post-Cold War world order as conceived of by American strategists. By this thinking, the goal is to integrate China into the global governance system so that it becomes a "good citizen," ready to take up the security and stability responsibilities incumbent upon a hegemon. But "Red Cliff" suggests an alternative reading, whereby China is not interested in being a hegemon, but rather simply wants to pursue its national interests free from American and Western tutelage.

That's actually reassuring, in the sense that it removes the kind of head-to-head rivalry that increasingly frames most American coverage of China's rise. But it's actually a bit more worrisome if you believe that America is in decline, and that the increasingly multipolar world order depends on the multilateral global governance system -- backed up by a global hegemon willing to enforce its rule sets -- to keep from falling into utter chaos.