China Screens Patriotic Movies to Whip Up Nationalistic Fervor
Pedestrians walk on a staircase in front of a screen displaying messages celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

China Screens Patriotic Movies to Whip Up Nationalistic Fervor


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China is reeling out a string of patriotic films as the Communist Party prepares to celebrate 70 years in power amid challenges to its authority from the unrest in Hong Kong and an economy weakened by the trade war.

At least three movies featuring the accomplishments of ordinary Chinese opened in mainland theaters Monday, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The country is set to celebrate its National Day on Tuesday.

“My People, My Country,” directed by seven of China’s best-known filmmakers, is a collection of stories of citizens in proud moments of the nation’s history. “The Climbers” chronicles the first Chinese team that scaled Mount Everest in 1960, and “The Captain” is the story of pilots who used their skills to save a passenger aircraft from disaster.

While China has historically used movies to instill ideology and patriotism, the goal of the latest releases is to reinforce nationalism, Chinese pride and aid President Xi Jinping’s drive to bring the party, and the country, in line. The campaign comes at a time when Beijing is looking for ways to resolve Hong Kong’s protests, as well as shore up economic growth.

“Definitely there’s an importance, and they are definitely going to push” these movies, said Sean Tierney, a Hong Kong-based film critic. The three movies are “too red to fail” at China’s box office, he said.

Months of protests, triggered by a controversial extradition bill, have turned into the biggest crisis for Beijing’s rule over the former British colony since it returned to China in 1997. The rallies against the now-withdrawn legislation have gradually morphed into a pro-democracy, anti-Beijing movement, with universal suffrage among the key protester demands.

The protracted trade war with the U.S. has also hurt the $13.6 trillion economy. It has hit consumer spending, factory output and the jobs market, with growth headed for the slowest pace in almost three decades.

Highlighting the link between the Communist Party and its use of movies to further its ideology, an official at the then-State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television told industry representatives in December 2017 that movies should serve the purpose of “promoting the prosperity of socialist culture and realizing the Chinese dream” as defined by Xi’s thought.

Several patriotic movies have seen commercial success.

In 2017, “Wolf Warrior 2” -- a movie about a renegade officer in China’s special operations force who single-handedly rescues hundreds of Chinese nationals from a war-torn country in Africa -- racked up about $800 million in ticket sales, making it the country’s top grossing film ever. “Operation Red Sea,” out the following year about a military squad saving compatriots from terrorist attacks in a fictitious Arab country, was the fifth-highest.

Grand Parade

Spreading national pride, about 70 cinemas across mainland China will screen the National Day celebratory activities live on Tuesday, according to state media Xinhua News Agency. The main event would be the grand military parade through the capital, featuring tanks, troop carriers and columns of goose-stepping soldiers in an 80-minute procession past Tiananmen Square.

While a movie like “My People, My Country” may barely register with the residents of Hong Kong, given the mood, it’s likely to score well in the mainland.

Maoyan, a local ticketing platform, said the films have already exceeded 1 billion yuan ($140 million) each in collections, including pre-sales, an amount considered a benchmark for a blockbuster, according to Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California. Both “My People, My Country” and “The Captain” had grossed more than 2 billion yuan each, Maoyan said.

Midnight Flag

Sales could also be bolstered by bulk ticket purchases by government organizations for their members, said Rosen, who’s been tracking China’s movie industry and its relationship with the government for more than a decade.

The gulf between expectations for the film in Hong Kong and in the mainland also shows the challenge Beijing faces in winning over hearts and minds in the city.

Britain’s handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997 is one of the seven big moments in the film “My People, My Country.”

The segment features a policewoman and a watchmaker whose stories intertwine heading into handover day, when China’s flag must be raised right at midnight. “It cannot be delayed for one second,” characters in the segment repeatedly say.

Beijing would expect the vignette on Hong Kong’s return to rally Chinese around the world to recognize that the special administrative region is of course Chinese territory, and it would contrast with those in the city holding up American or British flags, said Rosen.

“So the timing and the intended audience are related to the events in Hong Kong, but not just Hong Kong since it’s also the 70th anniversary, of course,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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