China, the late 1930s. A village is under siege by Japanese troops. A band of Chinese youth who would not look out of place riding skateboards in contemporary Beijing waits in ambush, guns in hand. As a sinister Japanese troop transport hurtles toward them, the hip Chinese guerrillas use a trip wire and an improvised explosive device to set off a blinding explosion. The bomb fails to kill all of the Japanese soldiers, who are bent on revenge as the episode comes to an end. But there is little suspense: Everyone knows that China will prevail.
This scene from “Enemy Troops at the Village Gate” is one of the many dozens of virulently anti-Japanese wartime dramas airing this season in China. About 100 anti-Japan films and nearly 70 TV programs were produced in 2013, according to Reuters, which estimates that the genre holds as much as 70 percent of the market. Despite waning viewer interest, the new season promises much more of the same.
The government has ordered TV stations to increase the airing of “patriotic” shows, of which anti-Japan dramas are exhibit No. 1. On Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, a headline in the Global Times, a party newspaper, said, “Prime time TV to be more anti-fascist.”
China has a long tradition of producing war movies for propaganda purposes, mostly good-versus-evil dramas drawn from the all-too-real and brutal war against Japan. The classic of the genre is “Tunnel Warfare,” produced in the 1960s and seen by billions of Chinese, which depicts resourceful Chinese insurgents outsmarting Japanese invaders by digging a network of tunnels.
In recent years, such government-sanctioned dramas have taken off, fueled by increasing tensions between China and Japan, and Beijing’s strategy of stirring up nationalism for domestic political purposes.
With the collapse of Communism in all but name, nationalism has become China’s new ideology, and antipathy to Japan, past and present, has been seized upon as a way to shore up patriotic fervor. A common enemy is presumed to promote unity, and provides a useful political distraction at a time when China is burdened with domestic discontent and economic unease.
Propagating popular suspicion of Japan also offers political cover to the Chinese military, which is rearming and expanding air and sea patrols at an alarming rate while using the perception of a Japanese threat to justify its actions.
Talking to Chinese directors and producers in Beijing while researching Sino-Japanese cultural issues as an Abe journalism fellow this past spring, I learned, once I got past the raised eyebrows provoked by the logo on my business card (the Abe fellowship was created by the father of Japan’s current prime minister) that producing TV dramas about Japan is about opportunity, not artistic vision.
The surge in anti-Japanese entertainment is the result of business decisions based on the financial realities of dealing with state-run TV stations, which operate in service of the Communist Party. Quite simply, production companies have learned to churn out shows that are most likely to make it past the censors. Producers pump out dramas that pay lip service to the party line in return for easy green-lighting and distribution deals.
But when the government acts as midwife in the marketing of nationalism as entertainment, there can be unintended consequences.
The genre, ridden with clichés, sex, flying kung-fu kicks and impossible feats of violent valor, has become something of a joke among Chinese viewers. When a bare-handed hero splits an enemy in half, top to bottom, while another downs enemy planes with hand grenades, the deluge of scorn and mockery on social networks indicates how badly the propaganda has backfired.
In 2013 there was so much sniggering on the Internet that China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which encouraged and enabled the production of the shows in the first place, joined the critical bandwagon, accusing some writers and producers of “not respecting history.”
Though the Communist Party had not lost its appetite for anti-Japanese content, a well-researched CCTV April 2013 exposé on shoddy drama served as a veiled warning to producers to stay on message: Popular television must promote the Communist Party and not become an object of mockery. The censorship-free zone granted to anti-Japan dramas is valid only as long as it is useful to the party.
Because stoking nationalism is playing with political fire, the party is vigilant about guiding its anti-Japan campaign. The current course appears to be keeping things bubbling without boiling over or going cold. There’s a lot at stake in Chinese-Japanese diplomacy, trade and military matters, so Beijing finds it useful to keep the frontal assaults contained in the cultural sphere.
Though “anti-fascist” entertainment is broadcast every hour of the day, every day of the week, the government’s strategy has had mixed results.
Chinese tourists flock to Japan in record numbers, and Japanese food, design, anime and manga are popular. Yet many other Chinese are as anti-Japan as ever. Incidents of actual aggression against Japanese people are rare, but xenophobic comments pop up often.
For example, the wartime epithet “guizi,” referring to Japanese as devils, repeated on Chinese TV hundreds of times a day, frequently makes the leap into real-world conversation. One only has to ask a Beijing taxi driver, or even a college student about Japan, and the word is bound to follow, sometimes playfully, sometimes not.
The hand that stokes the fire is also needed to tamp it down, which is why the party likes to have the first and last word on the subject.
I learned this as a guest commentator at CCTV, under the hot lights of talk-show television. During a break in a live broadcast about China’s space program in August 2006, news of then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni war shrine broke on the wires, which I duly mentioned when back on air.
The criticism was immediate. “You can’t announce news about Japan! The government hasn’t decided how to handle it yet.”
Then as now, the party clings close to its erstwhile enemy and economic rival. Whether it’s the drama of breaking news or even just a TV serial drama, when it comes to Japan, you can be sure the message has been managed.
Philip J. Cunningham has worked in television and film in China and Japan since 1986. His latest book, Tiananmen Moon: 25th Anniversary Edition, was published earlier this year.