The Chinese economy is taking a big hit as a result of the trade war with the U.S: A leading export indicator has fallen several months in a row, Chinese companies postponed campus recruitment, and auto and housing sales dropped. A number of U.S. manufacturers are moving production outside of China.
So why is China hanging tough and President Xi Jinping showing no sign of settling the dispute any time soon? The Chinese movie Wolf Warrior II may offer some clues.
The original Wolf Warrior, released in 2015, was an action-packed film about a Chinese elite special force — nickedname the “Wolf Warriors” — and their very muscly star, Leng Feng, apprehending a notorious Chinese drug lord who was aided by white mercenaries (made up mostly of former U.S. Marines). In Wolf Warrior II, Leng travels to an unnamed Africa country for a personal matter but gets caught in the middle of a civil war between government troops and armed rebels, also aided by white mercenaries — who are the real bad guys in this movie. With the help of the Chinese Navy, Leng rescues African and Chinese civilians and defeats the white mercenaries, in the process beating up their American leader, “Big Daddy.”
Both movies are replete with nationalistic messages and patriotic themes, and they share a tagline: “Anyone who offends China, no matter how remote, must be exterminated.” If the original movie showed off China’s technological advancement, military might, and determination domestically, Wolf II is all about demonstrating China’s ambitions and aspirations internationally.
In Wolf II, China is the only powerful, responsible, and benevolent world power. Chinese workers help Africans build their economy. Chinese doctors work to discover a cure for a deadly endemic. And the film unabashedly takes several swipes at the U.S. When African and Chinese civilians inside a factory are under attack by rebels and mercenaries, the only good American in the movie, Rachel Smith, a Chinese-American volunteer, fanatically tries to contact the U.S. embassy for help. Leng asks her, “Why are you calling the Americans? Where are they? It is a waste of time.” After she tells him that she tried to reach American government by Twitter, Leng responds that “the Americans are good for nothing.”
When Leng shows up at the factory, he tells the workers that “I’m Chinese and I come to save you.” True to his words, it’s the Chinese Navy’s powerful missiles that destroy the rebel’s tanks. It’s the Chinese Navy’s helicopter that airlifts civilians to the safety of a Chinese battle ship. And it’s the ultra-masculine Leng who saves the only good American by carrying her (against her will because she wants to help) to that Chinese helicopter. A typical Hollywood twist with “Chinese characteristics.”
To reinforce China’s superpower status, when Leng is pinned down by Big Daddy, an African rebel tells his American ally, “Don’t kill Chinese. Their government is the only permanent U.N. Security Council–member presence here.” Yes, the dialog is weird. Probably a Chinese-government propagandist inserted this line, because no one in real life talks this way. But rather than laughing at it, we should think about why the propagandist feels strongly the need to make this point: It implies China is the only benevolent superpower. Only China cares about those in need.
In the final crucial scene, Big Daddy tells Leng that “people like you will always be inferior to people like me; get f***ing used to it.” Leng, who was losing the fight a moment ago, jumps up and says “that’s f***ing history” before beating Big Daddy to a pulp.
In China, art is sanctioned by the government. There’s no doubt that this movie received the full support of the Chinese state. Therefore, we shouldn’t dismiss the movie simply as an action-infused fantasy. It clearly presents what China’s rise means to China: The country’s inevitable rise to world-power status corresponds to the inevitable decline of the old world power, the U.S. China is not only destined for greatness but also responsible for replacing the old world order with a new one led by China — one where the U.S. is not only a loser but practically irrelevant. China’s rise is realized through its superiority in military might, technological advancement, and, yes, morality. And China knows how to use its superpowers responsibly and wisely. The world is a better place because of China.
Both Wolf movies are wildly successful inside China, especially Wolf II, which grossed close to $900 million USD. The box-office success shows that these messages are not merely how the Chinese government sees its destiny but also what China’s rise means to much of the general population.
Americans don’t have to agree with any of this. But Wolf II offers insights as to why China has been hanging tough through its trade negotiations with the U.S. China sees the trade war as a new form of cold war and Trump’s tariffs as the last futile effort by Americans to curtail China’s rise. Chinese state media have vowed that “the Chinese people will never cave in to America’s unreasonable demands, citing China’s historical humiliations at the hands of colonial occupiers.” Chinese who dare to suggest compromise in the trade negotiation have been condemned by state media as “unpatriotic.”
President Xi has called for Chinese people to be ready for a “Long March,” a reference to the long and difficult journey the Red Army took from 1934 to 1936. In government-sanctioned history books, despite the hardship, the Long March preserved the Communist party’s strength and fighting power and eventually led to its victory over the Nationalist Party in China’s civil war. Xi’s message is clear: China’s economic setback as a result of the trade war will only strengthen China’s resolve. China is digging in for the long haul because China’s rise is unstoppable and China will come out of this a winner.
This hard-line attitude explains why China has retaliated against U.S. trade actions tit for tat. It also explains why Beijing reportedly set preconditions prior to the Trump–Xi summit at the G20, despite having a weaker economy. From reports after the summit, it seems China got what it wanted and more. Besides promising no additional tariffs on Chinese imports for now, President Trump removed the ban on American firms selling technology to Huawei, didn’t mention Hong Kong’s protest at all, and reaffirmed that Taiwan is part of China.
So how will the trade war end? President Xi is president for life and doesn’t have to face any election. He’s probably waiting for President Trump to fold first because of the 2020
U.S. election. I suspect the U.S. and China will sign a trade agreement before the end
of 2019. China will buy more stuff from the U.S., and it may even pay lip service to open
markets and structural reform, but it won’t change its trade practices, especially on
anything technology-related. President Trump will call it a win; the Chinese will see themselves as one giant step closer to a new world order.
A Chinese diplomat, meanwhile, warns of “disastrous consequences” if the U.S. treats China as an “enemy” — while Chinese media portray the U.S. as, quite literally, the bad guy.