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The world's new enemy

The Coming War On China
Regissør: John Pilger

John Pilger's documentary is a compelling vision of an upcoming war, and an insistent plea to Western audiences to rethink what they think they know. The movie is now available on DVD.


Tanned war correspondent and journalist John Pilger has long been an outspoken critic of US foreign policy, and what he sees as the country's imperialist agenda. He has long been a prolific documentary filmmaker for television, though The War on Democracy (2007) – an indictment on interventions in Latin America – his documentaries also included cinema rights. His last full movie, The Coming War on China, focuses on the so-called "turn toward East Asia": the United States' increasing awareness and commitment to the Pacific, part of a policy of isolating China, in order to preserve US hegemony in the region. Pilger's approach to the cases he is working on has always been marked by a strong commitment, rather than a "balanced presentation" of a case's two sides. It is a truth that must be revealed to "ordinary people": Western media's coverage of the world's news image is skewed and does not deserve their trust.

As expected, there are no pretensions of cool distance in The Coming War on China. Pilger drops nuanced complexity, in favor of an overarching narrative of an American empire maintained by a "giant gutter loop" of military bases, and propaganda measures aimed at making the world see China as the new enemy. He even stands at the center as an interviewer and authoritative narrator – sometimes sardonic, while at other times he exaggerates and is emotional so it lasts. But this is not a superficial audience. A well-chosen, impressive array of interview items (which include local people, beyond political and academic spheres) powerfully challenge dominant cultural clichés about East Asian nations, providing first-hand accounts of the pain of the colonized. They reinforce the validity of Pilger's claims.

Pilger cites human rights violations and state repression of dissidents in China, but only after emphatically showing that the United States can hardly be said to be a moral example.

The cynical hypocrisy of the West. Pilger illuminates the case through allegations and arguments – in clearly divided sections. The first – and most glowingly judgmental – starts with the United States' long history of human rights violations and repression in the Pacific region. Archive footage shows the Marshall Islands as tropical paradise – before they were occupied by Americans during World War II, and used for nuclear weapons testing. The inhabitants (portrayed in American recordings from the time of "the happy ones") became experimental rabbits: They were transported to Chicago to be researched as "humans exposed to radioactive radiation" before being sent back to their radioactive homes. Many died of cancer. Their irradiated bodies were far from the "bikini bodies" that were the new fashions in the West (dressed in the two-piece swimsuit named after the test atoll). The cynical hypocrisy of the West is constantly being emphasized. It is impossible not to agree with Pilger when he puts the tag "apartheid" on the gap in living standards, which is a result of the US presence. It becomes clear when residents of Ebeye, the most populous of the Marshall Islands and now known as the "Pacific slum," are transported across the bay to work on the golf course at a Reagan-era missile facility – "a fairytale land with suburban good lives ”.

Cultural overview. The fear is revitalized because the West's arrogant domination is threatened by an emerging China: a country without foreign bases in its territory, and with a new, bold political class, which is to some extent outside the country's vibrant market economy. The film shows that fear has long historical roots, sustained by propagandistic caricatures of Chinese (we see Boris Karloff as a 1930s incarnation of the evil criminal genius Fu Manchu, an English creation), which covered another imperialist agenda: opium money. This money was used to build the first industrial city in the United States. Then the focus is on Shanghai, now a global financial center as well as a busy port. Pilger is not just talking to well-informed colleagues – as James Bradley, author of The China Mirage -, but also Chinese experts: entrepreneur Eric Li contributes with a broad cultural outlook, and believes the myth that China wants to replace, or aggressively change, the United States must be put to death. Professor Zhang Weiwei is an outspoken critic of China's development model, and he says, "If you just deal with stereotypes, you'll miss so many things." Pilger mentions human rights violations and state repression of dissidents in China, but only after having emphatically shown that the United States can hardly be said to be a moral example.

The focus is on the so-called "turn toward East Asia": the United States' increasing awareness of and commitment to the Pacific, which is part of a policy of isolating China, in order to preserve US hegemony in the region.

A common struggle. The last part, which attempts to draw a picture of a uniform will to resist a brutal and provocative US imperialism throughout the peace-loving East Asia, is the most simplistic reductionist part of the film. A large relief on Okinawa by Japanese sculptor Kinjo Minoru is shown. It is located on a former US military base, and we hear that it is a "tribute to the resistance of the people". Another memorial in South Korea follows, claiming that the symbols of the "islanders' struggle for freedom" are remarkably similar. There is no doubt that the suffering referred to here goes deep. Still, the easy parallels Pilger draws may wipe out a fierce historical grudge between East Asian nations (Japan's treatment of Korea as a colony is still an open wound), as well as the differences between them. Nor is the generational divide in Korea's attitude toward US military presence mentioned.

Pointing aside: This is a robust and compelling vision of an upcoming war that does not speak to the congregation, as it implores a Western audience to reassess what they think they know. When he asks whether Trump will take us to the brink of a military upheaval that accelerated under Obama, Pilger leaves us with a comforting (or demanding?) Coda to his doomed melody: that ordinary people are a "superpower" who can – and must – act in time.

Also read John Pilger's lecture here

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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