When Hollywood is not being criticised for being a liberal mouthpiece, it is often viewed as a front for American foreign policy. The time-honoured example of this is the Rambo series wherein Sylvester Stallone’s invincible super soldier battles America’s communist enemies.
The Rambo films were shot against the reheating of the Cold War in the light of the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. They were also a reflection of growing American confidence during the Reagan presidency after the pessimism of the post-Vietnam era. But Hollywood is not the only industry guilty of this cinematic jingoism today.
China has found its own Rambo in Leng Feng, the hero of China’s latest box office smash, Wolf Warriors 2. The film has become the most successful in the Chinese box office, making more than five billion Yuan (£585m) since its release in late July, in contrast to a rather tepid year for its American counterpart.
Just as Rambo took on the might of the Soviet empire in the 1980s, Leng – played by Chinese action superstar, Wu Jing, who also directed the film – battles China’s foreign enemies. While strongly Chinese in national sentiment, it follows the path set by its Hollywood predecessors in terms of action and storyline. Also like many Hollywood movies, the film is indicative of the changes in Chinese foreign policy and attitudes today – just as Rambo had been for the Reaganite policies of the Cold War.
The plot is standard action fare with Leng, a maverick Chinese soldier, going to a fictional African state in the middle of a civil war to rescue Chinese workers and their African comrades – while also tracking down those who were responsible for his fiancée’s death. While this appears to be in keeping with the gung-ho US blockbusters of the 1980s, it is calls to mind recent events in Africa.
Near the beginning of the film, Chinese nationals are whisked aboard a People’s Liberation Army Navy ship in a scene reminiscent of the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya during the country’s 2011 civil war. Such a move has been cited as a watershed for China’s approach to Africa due to the sheer scale of the operation as well as being a break from the more cautious approach of the past.
This change in stance is further augmented when Leng argues with the admiral in charge of the evacuation, who claims that the lack of Chinese intervention is due to the United Nations rather than China’s reluctance.
There is also a parallel with Libya in the fact that the baddies in the film are portrayed as little more than puppets for their nefarious Western advisors, a group of mercenaries led by Big Daddy (Frank Grillo). This has shades of the assistance provided to anti-Gaddafi forces by NATO – and the claims that the rebels would not have been successful without Western support.
Ties that bind
So Wolf Warriors is both a critique of Western foreign policy and an expression of Sino-African solidarity, ties which stretch back to the period of post-war decolonisation – when the nascent People’s Republic of China provided assistance to numerous independence movements in the continent fighting against exploitation and harsh colonial policies.
Leng’s love interest, Rachel Prescott Smith (Celina Jade), alludes to this in a brief respite from the action in a graveyard for Chinese migrants to Africa. While detailing suffering in Africa’s past, she refers to the slavery brought to the continent by outsiders. They are not directly named – but it’s obvious that she is talking about the European empires that once ran much of the African continent. This is presented as a counterpoint to the idea that anti-colonialism was a key factor in the development of significant Sino-African ties in the 20th century.
This solidarity as expressed in Wolf Warriors II echoes Chinese foreign policy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s priority shifted towards economic development – and Africa, with its abundant resources, has become particularly crucial to achieving this, especially in the wake of the continent’s apparent abandonment by the US and Russia after the Cold War.
At the same time, Wolf Warriors II also serves as an expression of China’s growing military might – just as Rambo had been for US power in the 1980s. This comes in the light of China’s military modernisation announced by Xi Jinping in March 2017 on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. China’s power is demonstrated in the film’s ending where the Chinese fleet moves in to wipe out the remaining Western antagonists and their African puppets while Leng battles his American foe.
China’s increasing military power has been accompanied by a greater willingness to use it – and the country’s military presence in Africa has been augmented by the establishment of a naval base in Djibouti which is expected to enhance China’s ability to project power in Africa. This comes with the involvement of other Asian powers, most notably Japan and India, on the continent, leading to fears of a new “scramble for Africa”.
If film historians of the future examine Wolf Warriors II, they are likely to view it as a reflection of China’s growing confidence and assertiveness in the Xi Jinping era – just as Rambo demonstrated American self belief in the Reagan era. This sentiment, alongside the utilisation of China’s soft power initiatives, in turn also illustrates a new shift in Chinese foreign policy in line with China’s growing power – something that is one of the major issues of the present international system.
Tom Harper, Doctoral Researcher in Politics, University of Surrey.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.