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Christian Bale in China

By Nathan Wakelin-King, a Tsinghua University student interning at the EO

As an actor involved in a movie about the Rape of Nanking, Christian Bale was inevitably going to be involved in some mild political controversy. But then, in an act that was part stage-managed stunt and part investigative journalism, he got himself mixed up in a set of circumstances far more politically sensitive and controversial than a 70-year-old massacre.

The Rape of Nanking is deeply embedded in the Chinese consciousness. It and many other wartime atrocities committed by the Japanese Army, are like an invisible demon, casting its malignant influence on all aspects of Sino-Japanese relations, all the way from diplomatic relations down to the interpersonal level. Sometimes it is very overt: examples include the enraged editorials in the People’s Daily whenever there is a new dispute over history textbooks, or like the man outside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial who, visibly shaking with unrepressed rage, told me through broken English how much he hated Japan.

Its position in the modern Chinese psyche has many causes: reasons include its scale, the unforeseen level of its sadism, Chinese nationalism, a Chinese government which directly promotes said nationalism and last, but not least, the dishonest denialism and half-baked apologies that exist in small (but nowhere near small enough) sectors of Japanese government and academia. Death tolls quoted in the past have ranged from a few thousand to over 400,000

In other words, despite the protests of Zhang and Bale, A film about the Rape of Nanking was always going to have political elements.

Christian Bale has been accused of being in a propaganda film. This is not surprising. The depictions of Japanese soldiers are shocking, and the nationalism in many modern Chinese films is overt. It does not help that the film is partly funded by the Chinese government. Adding to this, sympathies in the liberal democratic west naturally tend towards the democratic government of Japan over the authoritarian government in Beijing. The recent diplomatic disputes between Washington and Beijing over jobs, currency and military bases, and the anti-China feelings in the US associated with these disputes, will also make the nationalism of the film distasteful to many western viewers.

I predict that many westerners when they see the film will react negatively to the portrayal of the Japanese in the film – leering, alien faces that speak in barking, harsh tones, humans who display no humanity and no emotion other than sadism. The Wall Street Journal described the film’s Japanese as “monochrome monsters”, a description which could be given to almost any depictions of Japanese in Chinese cinema.

To a small extent, this is a fair criticism. However, it comes from people who have no family history or cultural memory invested in the ravaging of Asia during WWII. Before you criticize the depictions of the Japanese too harshly, compare them to depictions of Nazis in western films – even in Oscar winners like Schindler’s List, German soldiers are depicted in exactly the same way: sadistic, mindless, and without humanity. The core reason for this is its element of truth: despite the civility of these nations in modern times, the cruelty of the brainwashed Japanese and Germans of the war time period is as well-documented as it is legendary. When an army commits mass murder and rape; when it indulges in bizarre acts of torture like live burials, the use of humans as targets for bayonet practice and civilian decapitation contests (as was reported by a Japanese newspaper), then it is quite natural for a film made later to show the soldiers as little more than mindless and cruel.

In a pleasant surprise, some of the recent editorials in the state-run press were relatively more conciliatory than those of the past. One stressed the progress of Sino-Japanese relations in the last few years, while, it also showed an article written by a Japanese who had studied in Nanjing.

Astonishingly, it wrote that the “death toll may be somewhat exaggerated”. It is pleasing to see that the Sino-Japanese relationship will not be solely defined by events of over 70 years ago.

More interesting, and far more dramatic and unexpected, was the second dose of political turmoil that Bale was involved in.

He was on film, there was a car chase and a confrontation – but he was just playing himself, and the camera crew was from CNN. With them, he went to go to the village of Linyi. Linyi, a village in Shandong province, is the home of Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self taught lawyer who championed the rights of Shandong citizens allegedly subjected to forced abortions by local government officials. For this, he was imprisoned, and later subjected to house arrest.

Posts on Weibo have been removed if they contain references to the lawyer. Despite the forced silence surrounding the issue, he is still talked about. In a reference to his appearance, a trademark of his supporters is the wearing of sunglasses. Recent attempts by Chinese citizens to see the lawyer in his village have resulted in them being mobbed by thugs.

Bale, who later described Chen as a “personal hero”, decided to go and see him himself. When Bale arrived at the scene, with the CNN crew in tow, the scene was dramatic yet totally predictable. They were stopped by thugs, threatened, and pushed away. They were told to leave, and the men chased them in a van until they had left the area.

Previously, supporters who drove there were mobbed by government thugs. In other words, even normal Chinese people cannot contact Chen. And if normal citizens can’t get there, then foreign journalists carrying large cameras don’t stand a chance.

There was therefore an element of “make-news” in this story. The Journalists at CNN would have known precisely what would happen when they arrived in the village. They could have showed up at any time and be confronted in the same way. Only with the Hollywood star would they have story that would cause a stir back home. And they couldn’t resist making remarks about batman when talking about their “car chase” an event which, while threatening, was really just a case of the thugs making sure they really were leaving the area. (The CNN-mobile did not explode and transform into a motor-bike, just in case you’re wondering).

Although the incident was almost certainly a set-up, the extreme reaction to anyone who visits Linyi is 100 percent authentic. And testing the lengths that officials will and won’t go to in order to hide uncomfortable issues is certainly very informative.

A less famous but better executed example was when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation demonstrated that if you want to be surrounded by secret police, all it takes is just one quick staged phone call. In his case, it was about a different sensitive issue - underground Christian groups.

At the very least, the extremity of the reaction is an indicator of the degree to which officials wish to hide an issue, and shows us what they will and won’t do to keep it away from the public eye.

Bale’s stunt will certainly make foreign observers aware of the plight of Chen. Whether this awareness will prompt a difference in policy remains to be seen. In China, though sites showing the video itself have begun to be censored, conversations on Weibo will never be stifled entirely.

It will be difficult to hide the fact that the person whose face has appeared on countless bus stops around China has personally clashed with government forces.

The Chinese state media will most likely do their best to ignore the stunt. One thing is for sure: If they do acknowledge it, then comparisons will not be made to Bruce Wayne, but to Patrick Bateman.


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