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The runaway success of a Korean War movie blockbuster perfectly captures China’s national mood amid rising tensions with the US

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

The runaway success of a Korean War movie blockbuster perfectly captures China’s national mood amid rising tensions with the US
Think ‘No Time To Die’ was the world’s biggest film last weekend? Think again. Chinese Korean War epic ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’ took that accolade, serving as an indicator of the rising wave of patriotism in the country.

The Chinese historical drama smashed local box office records over the past week, becoming one of the most lucrative National Day earners in the country’s history and raking in nearly $300 million in just under four days.

The film tells how Chinese troops confronted the United Nations Command led by Douglas MacArthur in 1950 at Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, after the American general had decided to cross the 38th parallel. The battle would become one of China’s most iconic victories in the conflict, forcing the UN Command to retreat south.

Despite there being thousands of movies glorifying US exceptionalism and militarism, CNN predictably branded ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’ a “propaganda movie” – but that ultimately tells us little about why it’s been so successful, and why there is such an appetite for films like this in China.

The Chinese film market has always been huge, and is still growing. Indeed, since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic it has boasted some of the world’s highest grossing films, as the Western box office has faltered. But this particular movie is proving popular for specific reasons, and it is true to say they are political: there is a rising wave of patriotism in view of China’s increasing tensions with the US. The film’s premise has never been more relevant.

Whilst nationalistic movies have had huge success in China before – in particular the now notorious ‘Wolf Warrior 2’, which depicted a fictional rescue mission in Africa – the Korean War has long held a special status in contemporary Chinese history.

Officially described as ‘The War to Resist American Aggression And Aid Korea’, China’s intervention in the conflict in 1950 is heralded as a historical turning point as it represents the moment where the country was no longer prepared to be militarily subjugated or bullied by the West. Instead it stood up to it, and held its own in the process, consolidating itself as a force to be reckoned with.

With the People’s Republic of China having been established by Mao Zedong only a year previously, Beijing’s entry into the war effectively helped him consolidate his power and set the narrative that China had stood up when it mattered. It demonstrated that it was a power again in its own right, thus closing ‘the century of humiliation’ which had haunted the country for the previous 100 years.

The results only served this narrative well. With North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung having failed to capture South Korea and been outwitted by MacArthur through the Incheon Landing, the UN forces invaded North Korea and then tried to extend the conflict into China, ignoring Beijing’s warnings.

Subsequent accounts have revealed that MacArthur wanted to drop a number of atomic bombs near the Sino-Korean border to consolidate the peninsula. Despite the fact that at the time, the newly created PRC had no air force and no navy – although it was given subtle air support by the Soviet Union’s Stalin – what was named the People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River between North Korea and China and launched a blistering offensive, which saw the allies pushed back as far as Seoul.

Although the Korean War would ultimately end in a stalemate around the 38th parallel, thus preserving the status quo division of the peninsula, with China having suffered considerable losses, the conflict continues to be perceived as a triumph. Its legacy instils a sense of confidence that China has taken on the US before, held its own and can do so again.

This sets the stage for its relevance today, with US-China tensions escalating, the Americans attempting to advance their military containment of China via AUKUS and sporadic aircraft carrier naval exercises, while things are heating up in the Taiwan Strait.

As a result, the legacy of the Korean War has become something the Chinese people can connect with in a patriotic way, expressing their own sense of national confidence with a view to the challenges which lie ahead.

And whilst a film is a film, its message and the legacy of that war should be taken seriously: that China is always prepared to fight for its own interests, press hard and endure sacrifices for doing so, whether in the past, present or future. This is how the Chinese people understand their own national obligation.

The People’s Republic of China is built wholeheartedly on these recurring themes of humiliation and national revival, and in no circumstances will Beijing let the country be subjugated again. We will see this play out in the various flashpoints of the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and so on, and while conflict may not be inevitable, the message is abundantly clear: do not underestimate China.

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If the country was prepared to go all out against a coalition of the United States and all its allies with a peasant army, no navy and no air force, what could it achieve today? It’s unlikely the people would be any less willing now.

Those who are banging the drums of war and looking for confrontation with Beijing would do well to remember the legacy of the Korean War, which is sometimes called ‘the forgotten war’ in the West. China certainly hasn’t forgotten about it – as is amply demonstrated by the appetite to see ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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