Have the United States and China begun a second Cold War? At first there seems to be no lack of evidence pointing to yes. The raising of barriers to trade and immigration, the imposition of sanctions and embargoes focused on sensitive technology, the constant rise in military budgets, an ever-more critical tone from the press regarding the other state, all of it contributing to an almost complete collapse of trust between the rival superpowers’ polities: surely such a lack of warmth must signal winter. Yet more careful observation should give us pause. For all the chatter of divorce, the marriage of convenience between the Chinese and American economies remains almost entirely in effect. Trade, and trade imbalance, on a colossal scale, goes on. A one-party People’s Republic reliant on Japanese and Western capital for investment, prosperity, and security can’t afford to have it any other way; likewise, a bipartisan capitalist republic whose economy depends on a nominally communist party has no option other than to maintain a ceasefire. The notion of a Cold War is more a memory or a wish now than a fact.
The truth remains, however, that U.S.-China ties have been utterly transformed over the past five years. Something precious has vanished: the potential for improvement. It was of little consequence that Donald Trump won the 2016 election by inveighing against China. But in doing so as a Republican and then matching his harsh campaigning words with harsh deeds in office, he established a precedent his successors cannot reverse. Neither a Democratic Party struggling to attract white working-class voters nor a GOP eager to buttress its white smallholder base can ease up on China without harming its own cause.
This change has not been lost on observers in Beijing. The ruling party and its legions of America-watchers have absorbed the Trump phenomenon and adjusted policy accordingly. In retrospect, the flagrant offensives against Chinese interests carried out under Trump were something like a godsend for the atheist Chinese Communist Party. Trump’s China-bashing galvanized a subject population accustomed to benign views of the United States and instructed them in the reality of great-power competition. With the possibility of better ties ruled out, the party is plowing the political capital accrued by its handling of the pandemic into an ever more ambitious program of internal discipline. The hog-tying of Hong Kong protesters, the mass incarceration of Uyghurs, the narrowing of permissible speech, the arbitrary humiliation of tech barons and real-estate moguls, intensified mass surveillance of physical and digital space—such authoritarian measures, which no self-respecting Western leftist can condone, aim to shut down every site within the home society from which the party-state’s supremacy could be challenged.
More ominous and less obvious than the above, however, is another, smaller set of initiatives. In the face of intensified threats from the United States, the CCP believes that it requires more soldiers, and it is celebrating soldiers and promoting their formation more and more with every passing year. Youth is central to this course of action. In school, English may be phased out of the curriculum; in its place, physical education is already being stressed. A regime of relentless academic test-taking is being dismantled. Children are now limited by law to a maximum of three hours of video gaming per week. And, just as the virtues and necessities of scientific learning have been popularized by innovations in Chinese science fiction—Liu Cixin’s interstellar trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past being the ultimate exemplar—the virtues of military service are being popularized by increasingly expensive and elaborate war movies. Whether on land, by sea, or in the skies, the various branches of the People’s Liberation Army now flaunt their skills and toughness for the silver screen. Though the films, financed by PLA holding companies, are themselves big business, they signify the recession of the business owner as a social ideal. Getting rich now seems less glorious than becoming patriotic, martial, manly. The prospect of a war with the United States is now, literally, being entertained.
Produced at a staggering cost of $200 million and released in September 2021, The Battle at Lake Changjin has since become the highest-grossing film ever released primarily in a language other than English: at the time of writing it has earned $913 million in box-office receipts. Set during the Korean War, it details events leading up to and including the titular clash between the Chinese and U.S. armies close to the end of 1950. Known in Anglophone military histories as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the violent encounter took place in a snowy and mountainous region in North Korea, with temperatures running to negative 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Marching by night to avoid being bombed by the U.S. Air Force controlling the skies, and surviving on minimal amounts of food and sleep, the 9th Army of the People’s Volunteer Army ambushed the technologically superior, numerically inferior X Corps of the U.S. Army and drove it from the battlefield. The casualties inflicted on the 9th Army were extreme. Multiple units died frozen in their positions. Yet combined with other successful PVA offensives in the north of the peninsula, their victory established a buffer zone between American forces and the Chinese border that would not be relinquished, thus achieving the primary objective set by party leader Mao Zedong when he ordered China’s intervention. Their collective sacrifice persists in memory to the present.
All this the film dutifully records. Though its lead characters are frontline soldiers in the 9th Army, directors Kaige Chen, Hark Tsui, and Dante Lam often shift the scene to the warring armies’ respective headquarters, giving audiences glimpses of the large-scale strategic thinking that motivated their deployment. On the shores of Inchon and in Tokyo, American warlord Douglas MacArthur is bellicose and bombastic, a Trump avant la lettre, his dreams of conquering the White House by winning in Korea proved vain by the same Chinese whose military capabilities he blindly scorned. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Mao is portrayed as sagacious and decisive, his shrewd gaze fixed on his nation’s long-term and immediate needs. “If it’s for our current situation, I really don’t want to fight this war,” he confides early in the film to PVA chief Peng Dehuai. “But if it’s for the future and the peaceful development of our country over a few decades or a century, we must fight this war. The foreigners look down on us. Pride can only be earned on the battlefield.” Soon after, in a conclave with the party elders at the Zhongnanhai compound—China’s equivalent of the Kremlin—the leader stresses, “If we ignore [the American advances to the Chinese border], our domestic and foreign enemies would think that we are weak and gullible. . . . Thus, throw out one punch now to avoid a hundred punches in the future.”
The need to establish deterrence by setting a forceful precedent is historically accurate, while the emphasis on “peaceful development” is a rank anachronism. Regardless of strategic soundness, Mao preferred the development of violence over peace for his entire career as party leader. Domestically, the Korean conflict served as cover for political and class purges that made their McCarthyite contemporaries look sweet and discerning; for frankly criticizing Mao’s demented cult of personality and Great Leap Forward, Peng would spend the last decade of his life imprisoned and tortured by Red Guards, and he only had his party honors restored posthumously after Mao’s own demise. (If today’s Chinese youth learn these facts, it won’t be in history class; the grim realities of Maoism in practice are being scrubbed from the curriculum.) The concepts of China’s peaceful rise are elements of the current leadership’s thinking, not Mao’s. Their placement in his mouth signals the degree to which his image has been appropriated to serve present priorities: war is a last resort and will only occur if China’s core interests, as defined by the ruling party, are not respected. “In fact, by being stationed in Taiwan, the U.S. Army has already invaded our territory” is another bullet point of Lake Changjin’s Zhongnanhai briefing; given that the PRC’s claims to all Chinese territory have not altered since then, Pentagon film critics can infer how the return of U.S. troops to Taiwan today would be received.
Having settled the why of the war to its own satisfaction, the film proceeds to concentrate on who and how. Fresh from service in the final stages of the civil war against the Nationalists, Company Commander Wu Qianli (Wu Jing) must train a new and immature recruit, his younger brother Wu Wanli (Jackson Yee), as their unit makes its arduous way to the climactic battle at the lake. As is typical in war movies, they are less characters than types. A seasoned veteran at playing seasoned veterans—he is the lead actor, as well as director and writer, of the state-sponsored action movies Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017)—Wu Jing projects experience, toughness, gravitas. His moments of levity only accentuate a fundamentally grounded nature. Seeing Wanli in uniform, Qianli is anything but thrilled. He knows the costs of war too well: a third brother, Baili, was killed in action before the film’s beginning. He delegates much of Wanli’s instruction to subordinates, and when he does teach, he is careful to impress the value of obedience: “In the army, you must abide by orders. Your comrades-in-arms might die for your mistake if you act on your own.” As Qianli stands in for the latter-day PLA, Wanli stands in for the audience member eager, but not quite ready, to adopt its values. Originally brash, unkempt, undisciplined, and easily scared, he and his boyish looks are molded by events, men, and self-criticism into a fearless presence, a seasoned killer of twelve by the film’s end. His gift for skipping stones on a lake at home evolves, under pressure, next to a frozen lake abroad, into a talent for hurling grenades.
The tremendous budget of The Battle at Lake Changjin has been transmuted into an unnerving abundance of technical detail. Weighing in at just under three hours, the film, which was produced by the People’s Liberation Army, is longer than the two American films about the battle—Retreat, Hell! (1952) and Hold Back the Night (1956), both supervised by the U.S. Marine Corps—combined. This extended runtime enables it to function not only as a recruitment video but also as a substantial demonstration of basic military strategies and tactics. The importance of cartography, deception, camouflage, environment, surprise, asymmetry, chain of command, esprit de corps, communications, cryptography, air power, killing, self-sacrifice, and logistics is imposed upon the viewer with repetitive intensity. Enormous tracking shots of rocky wastes and snowy mountainsides encompass the troop movements leading up to the final battle. The American supremacy in ships, tanks, and planes is meticulously reproduced with high-end digital graphics; the devastating carpet-bombings which secured MacArthur’s advance and covered his retreat are given their infernal due. The Battle at Lake Changjin is lavish in destruction and in deprivation. The unhelmeted 9th Army worries about insufficient winter coats; its soldiers break their teeth on cold potatoes scarcely softer than the rocks they crouch against. Meanwhile the X Corps, all hard hats and heavy layers, tucks into a meaty, warm Thanksgiving feast. “My family makes cheese broccoli for Thanksgiving. You want to come and join us next year at home?” one U.S. soldier asks another over a table. “I will, man. If we make it home,” the friend replies. They clasp hands.
Inadvertently hilarious notions of American cuisine aside, the film’s portrayal of U.S. troops is carefully sculpted to fit exigencies of contemporary racial politics. Despite the fact that the Korean War was the first conflict in which the U.S. military fought desegregated, not a single Black, Asian, or Hispanic GI is shown, much less shot, facing the PVA; whether out of some reductive vision of the U.S. demographics or simply a desire to not show Chinese soldiers killing non-whites, the X Corps of Lake Changjin is entirely pale-faced. Nor are the film’s producers overly eager to foster a discourse of race war between whites and Asians. In contrast with the old Marine Corps movies, where Chinese soldiers were depicted as dark, mute, inscrutable hordes—in a striking demonstration of the continuity between nineteenth-century wars against Native Americans and twentieth-century wars in Asia, or between the Western and the war film, Hold Back the Night likens them to “Comanches”—the white enemies are given voices that, however bizarrely accented, reflect real human motivations. Their commanders argue, their pilots preen, their enlisted men banter. A stray mention of “gook mortars” reminds the viewer of how much the racism of real GIs in the 1950s has been toned down. Though they must be killed and they inflict hellish destruction, the Americans are not demons. The best of them are tough, smart, and honorable, capable of giving credit to the Chinese when it’s due. The film’s last spoken words belong to U.S. Major General Oliver P. Smith: “Fighting against men with such strong will like this,” the Marine observes, saluting a detachment of Chinese soldiers that his division, in retreat, finds frozen to death in a fighting position, “we were not ordained to win.”
Pride, in other words, has been earned on the battlefield. Smith’s approbation confirms the adage set forth by a Chinese soldier that “you’re only tough enough when your enemies take you seriously.” If the Americans are presented as men, it is not only out of political sensitivity but also that they may more readily confirm the manhood of the Chinese. The film’s ultimate adversary is not the American military or the arctic temperatures, but internal weakness, a lack of fortitude and solidarity that is implicitly equated with emasculation. Combat is the crucible of patriarchy: men define themselves through mutual violence and, in doing so, define women in their absence. Women in the war film are still photographs, prized trinkets, missing letters. Barred from the domain of men, they are compelled to symbolize the things men fight for. After the battle, a soldier recalls how “Before I left home, my daughter asked me, ‘Daddy, why must you fight this war?’ If we don’t fight this war, our next generation will have to fight it. We are risking our lives to win them a peaceful life.” Ignoring domestic violence, the war film simulates a struggle between nations in which battle to the death becomes men: they must shield their women from the worst the outside has to offer.
Like almost every other war film, then, The Battle at Lake Changjin is less a work of art than a social engineering project whose primary function is the retooling of gender dynamics to suit a more assertive foreign policy. According to the Chinese state, this initiative is a counter-offensive: gender has already been weaponized. In 2019, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences advanced the hypothesis that Asian boy bands were originally an innovation of the Japanese-American CIA agent Johnny Kitagawa in the 1960s, crafted as part of an effort to emasculate a postwar Japanese culture that still retained strong elements of samurai belligerence. The popularity of Asian boy bands in consumerist China, consequently, can be viewed as a subversion of the patriotic will to resist American aggression; the pumping out of war films by China’s burgeoning military-industrial complex is intended to reverse a trend toward softness and lack of resolve, which could jeopardize national security. (Strong elements of this thinking are evident in Death’s End, the last book of Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy, as well.) It bears remarking that Jackson Yee, the actor playing the callow younger brother in The Battle at Lake Changjin, originally made his name as a boy-band singer: his conversion from a pretty boy into a fierce and dirty slayer of Americans represents the transformation in society’s masculine ideals demanded by the party leadership.
One can wonder whether the necessity of reinforcing patriarchal norms is overstated. Certainly there is no supporting evidence for Chinese masculinity being threatened within the composition of the party leadership. All seven members of the CCP’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee are men; of the twenty-five members of the Politburo, twenty-four are men; of the 204 members of the Central Committee of the CCP, 194 are men. So long as so few women stand at the party’s head, it seems doubtful that its take on gender relations can free itself of masculine biases. A country where a male-dominated party leadership once ruthlessly dictated a one-child policy that resulted in a gender imbalance of tens of millions more male than female babies—a country where this surplus male population, judging by the proliferation of war movies and their box office receipts, is now being willingly enticed into nationalist fervor and military glorification—does this country really have a deficit of stereotypically masculine qualities? The very success of movies such as The Battle at Lake Changjin disproves a great deal of their raison d’être.
What remains, as ever, is the pragmatic element. Though the PRC is still officially committed to a policy of nonintervention in foreign affairs, the war movies of recent years are gradually manufacturing consent for overseas military action, whether against pirates in the Red Sea (Operation Red Sea), religious terrorists in Central Asia (Sky Hunter), drug traffickers in Southeast Asia (Wolf Warrior, Operation Mekong), white mercenaries in Africa (Wolf Warrior 2), or American troops in East Asia (The Battle at Lake Changjin). (This mechanism is, of course, nothing new to American audiences: 1986 alone saw the release of Tom Cruise’s anti-Soviet Top Gun, Clint Eastwood’s anti-Cuban Heartbreak Ridge, and Chuck Norris’s anti-Hezbollah The Delta Force.) The more that Chinese firms invest in what once was called the Third World, the more armed force is required to protect their interests. What does this portend, if not a hard-bodied military empire to match the paternalist dictatorship at home? Since the intervention in Korea, it has never seriously been in doubt that the men of the Chinese nation, as constituted by the CCP to achieve its objectives abroad, have the capability to take up arms. What remains open to question is when, if ever, they can lay them down.
Frank Guan lives in Louisville, Kentucky. His criticism has appeared in Bookforum, n+1, and the New Yorker.