Updated: Jan 8
The new Black Ops just came out and apparently it’s terrible for reasons that I honestly couldn’t possibly care less about. What is interesting to me though is that, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, we’re still shooting Russians in our video games. Everybody whose uncle was invited to the holiday Zoom knows that the real enemy of Western values right now is China, so shouldn’t we be mindlessly gunning down scores of Chinese soldiers with no repercussions by this point instead? Why can’t I find a game, or even a movie or show for that matter, where a two-dimensional character representing every Communist Party value that threatens my worldview can get their shit pushed in by an English-speaking alpha-chad warrior at the very satisfying and completely predictable ending?
For real, for like a century there’s been a very simple equation to determine which demographic will dominate the ranks of entertainment media antagonists for a given period. It goes like this: look at the news of that period and then find the nationality or ethnicity that shows up most often in a critical light. After that, distill that nationality or ethnicity down to the traits that most upset the average American. It could be religion, politics, we could be at war with them, they could be threatening war, or it could just be their melanin content and facial structure. Regardless, slap those traits on any old bad guy and you don’t even need to write a compelling story, people will just eat that shit up and never ask questions.
This is a formula that applies to every point in time in the history of the entertainment industry in the west except for right now. There are a few things that could explain why this is happening, but in order to get there, we must first accept our hypothetical uncle’s premise that it’s now China’s turn to be the bogeyman. And I’m not just gonna throw out wild assertions about geopolitics and expect you to believe them without having provided any evidence; what do I look like, Tucker Carlson and/or every male polisci major at a party and/or the Chinese government? No, so sit back and let me hit you with some of that sweet, sweet context.
In the mid-20th century there was a Marxist revolution in China. The emergent leader of the revolution, Mao Zedong, rose to power in 1949 and founded the People’s Republic of China, controlled by the Communist Party. Mao quickly implemented a series of brutal reforms aimed at eliminating ideological threats and it became obvious that Mao and his squad never read Animal Farm. Or, as would become evident during the very poorly named “Great Leap Forward,” an economics textbook. The Great Leap Forward was an economic plan that aimed to industrialize Chinese society and ended up triggering the worst famine in history. Dozens of millions starved to death.
Other prominent leaders within the Communist Party, including Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, who are important I promise, started to notice that their country was falling apart and began exerting more power. It’s been suggested that this is the cause of what might be the biggest and most devastating temper tantrum of all time, nicknamed the Cultural Revolution. Mao strengthened his cult of personality and called on his supporters to crush critics among a perceived newly established elite which included academics, students, politicians, and Liu Shaoqi, who was “purged” and died in 1969. The Cultural Revolution was responsible for deaths ranging into the millions. And we think Trump’s temper tantrum is bad.
Deng Xiaoping rode that shit out though, and after Mao’s death in 1976, he rose to power. In 1978, he rolled out Deng Xiaoping Theory, a series of economic reforms that would become the backbone of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” which is just capitalism with a dictatorship on top for flavour. Basically, Deng opened the country back up to the rest of the world, and the economy exploded. The World Bank called China’s economic expansion through 2018 “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history,” and hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty.
Hundreds of millions out of poverty is objectively fantastic, but when a country that wasn’t rich before suddenly gets very rich very quickly, a bunch of supernerds who have nothing better to do than sit around and think about things all day tend to start tossing the words ‘Thucydides Trap’ all over the place. The Thucydides Trap is the idea that when two states approach a similar amount of global power and influence, they inevitably fall toward conflict.
Now, hyper-omeganerds usually start talking about these things way before regular people because they’re the only ones who care, but academics advise politicians, politicians form policy, the media reports those policies, then somebody makes a meme or an Instagram infographic about it, and finally the issue enters the public consciousness.
There’s no one event that has officially signaled China’s newfound status as primary antagonist to the West, but there has been a bunch of shit that definitely adds up to a critical mass of West-antagonizing. Xi Jinping’s rise to the Presidency in 2013 was marked by the rollout of “The Belt and Road Initiative,” a $1 trillion infrastructure investment program that expands China’s influence into around 70 countries. President Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, wrote a book in 2011 called Death by China, the message of which seems pretty self-explanatory. Navarro was clearly one of the giant loser nerd people, but then he was sent to Washington where he helped Trump start a trade war with China in 2018.
On December 1, 2018, the CFO of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition request from the U.S. In retaliation, Chinese officials arrested two Canadians living in China on unsubstantiated espionage charges shortly thereafter. By the way, their names are Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor and they’re known as the Two Michaels, which sounds like a shitty ska band out of Seattle, not the name of a hostage crisis. Like America has “The Iranian Hostage Crisis,” Israel has “The Munich Massacre,” and Canada gets “The Two Michaels,” like are you fucking kidding me?
Speaking of Huawei, cybersecurity experts have advised almost every western government not to allow the company access to their new 5G networks and Tik Tok was almost banned in the U.S. over Chinese ownership. Western governments have voiced support for pro-democracy protests against mainland China’s influence in Hong Kong and condemned the Communist Party’s literal concentration camps in Xinjiang province that involve the systematic castration, rape, and ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs, a musim minority.
Opinion pieces like Niall Ferguson’s article in the New York Times in 2019 declare the start of Cold War II (sick), and probably the most tangible evidence of China’s growing global influence is the presence of their censorship in our entertainment, which is what this article was about in the first place. Guess the crazy uncle was finally right about one.
So that’s one overly broad premise down, now onto the other one: that the antagonists in our entertainment shadow the antagonists in our politics. Let me tell you a story. In the East Room of the White House, on February 18, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson and a handful of friends and family became the first people ever to watch a movie from the seat of executive power in America. Director D.W. Griffith’s three-hour silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, debuted several filmmaking techniques that would help to make Hollywood’s fledgling film industry the foremost in the world, a status it has retained for over a century. It was also so fucking racist it’s unbelievable.
The movie painted black men as unintelligent, animalistic rapists and the Ku Klux Klan, a violent, white nationalist, domestic terrorist organization as a group of righteous vigilantes fighting bravely against the oppression of white people (good joke) at the hands of black Republican politicians in the wake of the American Civil War — a period known as reconstruction which you should google. President Wilson allegedly said that the film was “like writing history with lightning,” which is a good way to put it if by ‘like lightning,’ he meant that it was racist.
The point of that story is that this is an old tradition, and not always a good one. There are some positive examples of the integration of politics into our movies: In Star Wars, for example, George Lucas based the forest moon of Endor on Vietnam, the Ewoks representing the Viet Cong, who managed to repel an overwhelmingly powerful invading force with guerilla tactics and a superior understanding of the terrain in the same way that the Empire was defeated. Episode VI came out in 1986, after everyone understood that the Vietnam War and Nixon were stinky and bad, but Episode IV came out during the peak of the Cold War, and everyone understood the metaphor when the Death Star blew up Earth-like Alderaan.
There are far more examples of very sloppy integration of politics, however. The movie 300 forgoes historical accuracy in favour of making sure the brown people in it live up to American expectations. The Persians, who at that point in time were equally if not more culturally advanced than the Greeks, are depicted as savage mystics forcing the Spartans, an army of democracy, to war. Replace mystic with Muslim, and we get a pretty transparent metaphor for the Iraq war, which began 4 year prior to the film’s release. Nothing better in wartime than a violent movie about slaughtering people who look exactly like the people with whom you're at war.
Now, knowing all this, you might wonder why I’m complaining that this trend isn’t continuing through the rise of China. Isn’t it a good thing that the entertainment industry seems to have stopped exploiting political anxieties for cheap emotional response? And the answer is that it would be a good thing, if the entertainment industry actually did stop that, but they haven’t. Instead, they just use different countries with scary reputations but that don’t control the biggest gaming market and the second biggest film market in the world. In the case of Red Dawn (2012), the filmmakers literally changed the enemy army from China to North Korea in post production, and superhero movies and video games keep finding reasons for Russians and Eastern Europeans to be responsible for everything that goes wrong.
Chinese influence in games and movies goes beyond just not being the main villains. The Chinese government has complete control over what its citizens can legally access on the internet, it’s called the Great Firewall of China, very clever. This means that if the government thinks that any part of a movie or game embarrasses the Communist Party or reflects negatively on Chinese citizens, it doesn’t make it to market, which results in huge losses for the publishers. Scenes that make China or its people look bad have been removed from movies like Mission Impossible 3 and Skyfall, and scenes that make China or its people look good have been added to movies like Iron man 3 and Mission Impossible, Rogue Nation. This kind of thing means that the country has a big say in the content of anything that wants a piece of that big ol’ market share.
It even goes beyond content. Tencent, the Chinese internet giant, owns 100% of Riot games, the publisher of League of Legends and Valorant, two massive games, 40% of Epic Games, makers of Fortnite and the owner of a large digital games store that controls access to games in the West, 5% of Ubisoft, and 5% of Activision Blizzard, CoD Black Ops’ publisher. In 2019, Activision Blizzard severely punished a professional Hearthstone player for voicing support for the Hong Kong protests during a live event. Also in 2019, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morley tweeted support for the same protests and Tencent, who has a $1.5 billion streaming deal with the NBA, announced it would no longer show Rockets games. The Rockets organization quickly distanced itself from the remarks and Morley apologized.
In 2017, China stopped issuing licenses for South Korean games publishers for around 4 years over the country’s decision to host a U.S. missile defense system, so now we’re not even pretending it’s about the content. And the icing on the free speech funeral cake is that in the credits of Mulan, Disney thanks the province of Xinjiang, the government directly responsible for the administration of, again, literal concentration camps, for facilitating filming.
So, here’s my point: I’m not upset that for the first time in history, our entertainment industries aren’t using their power to be borderline racist about a culture that threatens ours, but to be honest, they would do it if they could. And the fact is, it’s lowkey scary that they can’t. It’s one thing to prevent your own people from finding out about the fucked shit that you do in your country, not a lot we can do about that from all the way over here. But it’s a much, much bigger thing to prevent people in the so-called free world from finding that shit out, or even from having a perception that you might do fucked shit in your country.
Because that’s the Chinese government's end goal. They want to end up in a position where anyone who mentions China’s abuses is silenced, where publishers are constantly worried about the smallest slight, and where Disney thanks the government responsible for concentration camps. I seriously can’t get over it, that’s like if Walt Disney thanked Hitler for letting Mickey Mouse wear Lederhosen. Although, let’s be honest, those two definitely talk politics in hell, where I will also be going because of this headline.