Chinese evacuations and power projection: Part 2 – A movie genre is born
This article by Director - AARC, Colonel Peter Connolly, was first published on The Strategist and is republished with the kind permission of ASPI.
China’s growing military power has recently found expression in its popular culture. Highly nationalistic movies extol the virtues and capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army in a clear move to establish evacuation operations as the ‘new normal’. What does that mean for our region?
Part 1 of this series explained how the development of China’s policy of overseas citizen protection since 2006 has mirrored the PLA’s growing capability to project force. This part examines the Chinese Communist Party’s recent messaging of these trends to domestic and international audiences through film.
Chinese war movies in recent years have become more nationalistic and explicitly militaristic. Some examples are The Taking of Tiger Mountain (智取威虎山; 2014), Wolf Warrior (战狼; 2015), Operation Mekong (湄公河行動; 2016) and Sky Hunter (空天猎; 2017). Lately, they have featured the PLA operating abroad to protect Chinese citizens. Given that all movies must be approved for release by the CCP, this is a significant trend.
The 2017 blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼 2), set in an unidentified war-torn African country (in a loose reference to the Libyan evacuations of 2011), became Chinese cinema’s highest-earning film ever. It tells the story of a Chinese special forces soldier who comes out of retirement to fight Western mercenaries and facilitate the evacuation of a group of distressed Chinese citizens.
China’s official foreign policy dictates non-interference in other nations’ affairs. Wolf Warrior 2’s tagline suggests the very opposite: ‘Whoever offends China will be punished, no matter how far away the target is.’ (Note that the Chinese character 诛 zhu is translated here as ‘punished’ but can also be rendered as ‘killed’ or ‘executed’.) The movie reinforces the expectation that China will use its power to protect its interests abroad. The final frame shows the back cover of a PRC passport, on which is written in Chinese characters, ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: when you are in danger overseas, don’t give up! Remember, behind you, there is a powerful motherland.’
Operation Red Sea (红海行动) opened in 2018 in Chinese cinemas as part of the celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. It depicts an even more fantastical Chinese evacuation operation (apparently based on the evacuation from Yemen in 2015). The movie tells the tale of a team of eight Chinese ‘Sea Dragon’ marines who are deployed into the desert of a fictional African country (‘Yewaire’) during a coup d’état to rescue a single Chinese hostage. Along the way, they create an impressive trail of destruction, engage in a tank battle, defeat an act of terrorism and leave some of their team killed in action.
During the real evacuation from Yemen in 2015, around 900 evacuees were loaded onto three PLAN ships in the shortest time possible. It reportedly occurred without any fighting, which is obviously the preferred outcome in such missions.
According to some Chinese observers, Operation Red Sea sought to be more realistic and less jingoistic than its immediate predecessors. It is certainly more violent. Professor Song Geng of the University of Hong Kong noted that, ‘Some of the fans of the film have no experience of going abroad. The film caters to the fantasy of the common people as China’s economic power rises … [They are] longing for the renegotiation of China’s place in the world.’ Film critic Guo Songmin was less impressed: ‘Frankly speaking, in these several movies, China has imagined itself as another US.’
Of particular interest is the closing scene of the movie, which appears to be completely unrelated to the rest of the storyline. It cuts briefly to a fleet entering an archipelago (possibly an American task force entering the Spratly Islands). The PLAN issues a warning that the flotilla is entering the sovereign territory of China and should turn around. It appears to be a message to both domestic and international audiences.
Despite this desire to portray the PLA performing heroically in combat, the fact is that the PLA has had no such experience since the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. The PLA and the CCP appear sensitive to this apparent weakness, and seek to counteract it with a narrative of combat-readiness. As one commentator from the Chinese media observed in relation to the 90th birthday of the PLA, ‘Xi’s repeated calls for combat readiness could literally mean that [the] PLA is sorely lacking combat readiness.’
Conscious that lack of experience could lead to a lack of confidence in the force, the PLA seeks to expand its knowledge of the realities of overseas deployments through peacekeeping missions in Africa, and through the experience of others. A Chinese military spokesman recently commented, ‘The PLA is the only major military force that has no real battle experience and it is very eager to get its hands on some real lessons.’
The most recent movies also showcase some of the PLA’s latest military equipment: Operation Red Sea has a Type 054A frigate and a Type 071 amphibious transport dock, Sky Hunter included aerial manoeuvres by the J-20 stealth fighter and a Y-20 military transport, and Wolf Warrior 2 included the PLA’s Type 59D tank and Type 05 self-propelled howitzer. Chinese naval expert Li Jie believes that ‘the comprehensive national strength of China has risen by a large margin and in some aspects even surpasses other leading powers’.
These movies are appearing as the climate of strategic competition is heating up.
It’s important to remember that article 50 of China’s constitution talks about protecting the ‘rights and interests’ of Chinese citizens abroad. As Chinese power and influence expand, and Chinese confidence grows with it, the citizen protection policy could be used for more than just what the Western world understands as ‘evacuation operations’ (that is, benign in their intent and limited in their scope and duration).
Overseas citizen protection, having been normalised domestically by movies, and internationally as a ‘public good’, could be enacted not to evacuate Chinese personnel, but to protect them and the state’s interests in situ. China’s declaratory strategic policy and constitution suggest that the state could use the policy to protect ‘overseas interests’ of an entirely different nature.
About the author: Colonel Peter Connolly is the Director of the Australian Army Research Centre. He is researching Chinese interests in the Pacific for a PhD at the Australian National University.