Outside IMAX theatres, mostly inside trendy shopping malls in Beijing and elsewhere, China’s millennial generation is out in strength. Typically born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, these young people have converged in droves to watch the movie Wolf Warrior 2 , which has been a runaway hit at the box office. Wolf Warrior 2 is a thriller with a difference, which has caught the imagination and stoked the fires of hyper-nationalism in China’s generation-next. The finely choreographed plot is about the rescue of Chinese workers taken hostage in an African country by a Special Forces officer of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The theme connects well with China’s aspirational youth. Familiar with the osmotic culture of globalisation, the Chinese youth are well acquainted with the violence perpetrated by non-state actors against their compatriots, especially in parts of Africa. The presence of Chinese companies on the continent has ensured that Chinese nationals, who are occasionally targeted, have a visible profile, especially at project sites. China’s rising engagement with Africa is palpable. African students on scholarship can be easily spotted across China’s vast university network. In balmy coastal cities such as Guangzhou, the sight of African businessmen appears common. African journalists are also visible in briefing halls designated for the China-based international press corps.
The storyline of Wolf Warrior 2 dovetails with China’s focussed “going-out” strategy, of investing abroad, as part of President Xi Jinping’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative. The audience is, therefore, unlikely to be surprised by the on-screen presence of the PLA, far away from China’s shores. China’s millennials are already well sensitised to stories appearing in the domestic media, about their country’s ambitious military reforms. These include setting up theatre commands, which can undertake missions far away from home.
Wu Jing, the martial arts expert who acted in the film and also directed it, acknowledges that the film intended to tap vast hidden reserves of nationalism in the youth. At a recent press conference in Guangzhou, he said: “Patriotism has been hidden away inside the audience for a long time and this sentiment needs to be released through a film and a role.”
Lu Peng, a researcher specialising in film and culture at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the South China Morning Post that the film was successful because it fed into the new wave of Chinese nationalism. “Based on real-life news events in recent years, the story has found it easier to generate national pride than traditional propaganda films,” he observed. The release of the film was timed to perfection. It hit the screens when the PLA was celebrating its 90th anniversary.
Tensions with India on the Doklam plateau on the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, amplified relentlessly by sections of the Chinese state media, also fitted into the narrative of hyper-nationalism. Many thus see the film, and its wider context, as psychological preparations, especially of those born in the reform-era, for China’s possible foreign military engagements in the future. “Nationalist sentiments are now rising to a fever pitch. It will be hard to backtrack from this point,” said a Chinese academic who did not want to be named. These debates unfold at a time the country is preparing for the 19th party Congress. Slated for later this year, it hopes to reinforce the build-up of President Xi Jinping’s image as a “strong” leader of a rising China, in the footsteps of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
By Atul Aneja