During my fieldwork in Tanzania in 2015, I once had a Chinese friend who ran into some trouble with some potential business partners who refused to return his money. To persuade them, he threatened that his “American friend” (i.e. me) would go the US Embassy for assistance. At one point, he even had me call the US embassy so that I could hypothetically ask them what assistance they could provide to a US citizen who faced the problem facing my friend. The threat did not work, and the US embassy told me that there was nothing they could do. On multiple occasions, however, Chinese interlocutors would argue that as an American citizen, I possessed a level of immunity they did not have, that local people in Tanzania “feared” to harm those with white skin like myself because of the way the US acted in countries like Iraq. These were sometimes criticisms of US imperialism, but more often criticisms of what they considered a reticence on the part of the Chinese government to protect overseas citizens. This is exemplified by the rumor, not limited to the Chinese in Africa, that the US passport included a sentence which says, “no matter where you are, the United States will always strongly back you” (不论在哪里,美国永远是你的坚强的后盾). The Chinese passport, on the other hand, is believed to instruct citizens to follow the law of foreign countries, respect local customs, and to not embarrass China. Without denying the reality of discrepancies in national privilege in the world, rumors such as these suggest how they have become overdetermined in measuring the extent or lag of China’s “rise” in the world.
The film Wolf Warrior II (戰狼II), which has set records in China, and has inspired much American commentary on its nationalist messages, targets such discontents directly, right down to a direct refutation of the US passport rumor in the final shot of film: an image of the Chinese passport accompanied by text assuring the Chinese audience that a “strong country” is behind them when they are abroad. Earlier in the film, Celina Jade’s character, Rachel Prescott Smith, like my friend, also seeks out the US embassy by phone, believing that the “US Marines” would be able to extract them from the civil war the characters find themselves in the middle of. When she reaches the American Embassy, however, a voicemail message informs her nonchalantly that the Embassy is closed. She angrily slams the phone down. Leng Feng, played by action star Wu Jing, smiling with amusement, questions her faith in the US marines, and tells her that when he saw the foreign ships leaving the shores of this unnamed “African” country, among those were the “stars and stripes.” Moments like these in the film seem almost hand-delivered to panicked liberal internationalists in the US regarding the effect of Trump’s politics in the world.
But moments like these also show how the film, while ostensibly set in “Africa,” is not really about Africa; it’s about China’s standing in the world vis-à-vis the United States. Like mainstream narratives in the West about Africa-China relations more generally, Africa in the film is primarily a playground on which Chinese and American contend (as embodied in the characters of Leng Feng and Big Daddy, (played by Frank Grillo).
The Chinese nationalism presented in the film is primarily defined in terms of masculine strength, embodied in the character of Leng Feng, and this masculinity is repeatedly validated against a series of ethnoracial/gender/class opponents: he single-handedly defeats Somali pirates underwater; kills a corrupt Chinese local male official; outdrinks a succession of African men at a beach bar; kills the American mercenary villain and his band of international sidekicks (including what I assume is supposed to be a Japanese man), and romantically dominates a woman whose name, Rachel Prescott Smith (played by Celina Jade), advertises an unsubtle whiteness.
These masculine conquests unfold against a plot which directly features the Chinese Navy as a character in the story. It is a character which stands in the background as Leng Feng’s action embodies a military identity. When it does enter the story as an “action” actor on its own accord, it is climatic moment, featuring real images of missiles firing from Chinese shapes. The climax of the film is the People Liberation’s Army Navy’s surface-to-surface missile attack on the mercenary-cum-rebel forces surrounding a besieged Chinese factory with Chinese and African workers. The film builds tension by holding the Chinese military back at multiple key points in the film. The Chinese ambassador’s daring walk outside the gates of his embassy at the beginning of the film foreshadows the intervention, but an exchange of fire is held back until the end. The Navy does not fire the missiles until the order from above has been received. The wait for the order is extended over several minutes as naval crewmen and women watch in horror and tears as Chinese and African civilians are gunned down across the factory, apparently helpless and unable to intervene. When the order comes through, the commanding officer shouts the order to fire, and the film shows the missiles firing from their silos. It is a dramatic scene not just in the context of the film’s plot, but also in historic time. While the US Navy has routinely engaged in such remote forms of firepower, the Chinese Navy has never launched such a surface-to-surface attack in Africa, and if it did, it would likely be recognized as a paradigm shift in Chinese foreign policy.
The missile launch sets the stage for the final man-to-man physical battle between Leng Feng and Big Daddy. The symbolic dimensions of the fight (American vs. Chinese), if not already obvious to the viewer, are reinforced by the dialogue. Big Daddy tells Leng Feng that he is impressed by his performance and that the “Chinese military is not as lame as I thought.” The final moment of the fight, when Big Daddy has Leng Feng pinned down, encapsulates the racialist-masculinist undercurrent of the film. Big Daddy tells Leng Feng that “people like you will always be inferior to people like me.” Leng Feng responds that what Big Daddy has said is“damn history” (他妈的以前的事), before stabbing Big Daddy with the bullet he has carried around his neck since the beginning of the film; the bullet which (supposedly) killed his fiancé. The message is direct and unambiguous; China is now strong enough that an emasculated racial inferiority should no longer be part of the Chinese consciousness. The emasculation of China has come to an end now that China has released its missiles into the heart of Africa, and stabbed an American villain in the face.
A character like Leng Feng is effective because he can embody “the Chinese military” without actually bearing the responsibility of being “Chinese military” within the UN world chain of command asserted in the film. The release of Chinese military power depicted in the film, after all, is carefully circumscribed by the United Nations. During a scene in which the Chinese ambassador is urging a military intervention to save Chinese citizens trapped in the besieged hospital and factory, he is reminded that China lacks “UN authorization” to intervene. The other constraint on Chinese military action in the film is the sovereignty of the generic African state. It is in fact only when the Prime Minister officially requests military assistance from the Chinese government that the gears leading to the film’s climax begin to turn.
The legitimacy of international law or the United Nations to constrain military action is never as directly verbally challenged in the same way as, for example, the film Hotel Rwanda. The United Nations both limits China’s “freedom of action” (to borrow the American lingo) and legitimizes its foreign intervention. When the main characters and their caravan of Chinese and African workers reach the safety of the Chinese base, we see the UN flag flying next to the PRC flag, a contingent of white vans at the front with the eponymous UN marking, and the Chinese soldiers meeting the refugees wearing blue helmets. Only the ambassador and his accompanying officials remain in the formal business attire and PRC collar pins we see from earlier in the film. The base, seemingly deployed in the inland heart of this country, is a “Chinese” base wearing UN colors.
Leng Feng’s clandestine mission behind enemy lines, in the service of China, but officially unaffiliated with the Chinese state (he is told several times in the film that he is “on his own” although everyone is rooting for him) brings the film’s plot close to the American Rambo genre which it is being compared, providing filmgoers a spectacle of sovereign extralegal violence which can nonetheless be disavowed by the fact that all the “official” Chinese state delegates in the film closely conform to international law. This makes the final shot of the film ambiguous. In displaying the Chinese passport and reminding the Chinese audience that there is a strong country behind its citizens, are we supposed to understand this in the context of how the Chinese government behaves in the film, or in the masculine conquests of Leng Feng?
Also of note is the fact Leng’s court martial at the start of the film is on account of him killing a corrupt local official in China attempting to demolish the family home of his former comrade. The scene is noteworthy in portraying local officials as base, and the military as virtuous and even beyond the law. He is court-martialed, and he later takes an unofficial mission, but his military training and comradery continues to inform the story, and when he fights, it is Chinese masculinity and military strength he fights for. This is not unique to the Chinese case (the comparisons to Rambo go beyond the action stylings), but it does express the allure and desire of militarism as the highest expression of national character.
Leng Feng’s romantic conquest in the film is interesting for a variety of reasons; both reinforcing and complicating the masculine-nationalist premise. Over the same period Leng Feng physically overcomes the American male, he also captures the romantic affection of a female doctor named Rachel Prescott Smith, played by Celina Jade. Describing the burgeoning romance a “conquest” makes sense given that the plot requires Rachel’s status as a medical doctor to eventually give way to her status as female-in-distress.
As Dr. Smith reminds Leng Feng during an evacuation for “women and children,” she is a “doctor” and not a “woman”; responsible for looking after the patients still under her care. This protest is summarily put down when Leng Feng physically picks her up against her will and drags her to the helicopter. I thought the film was making an ironic joke when the helicopter intended to save her subsequently gets shot down, but I don’t think it was intentional. The peak action-hero gendering of the film, however, happens when Leng Feng, after having contracted the Ebola analogue in the film, is inexplicably still operating a motor vehicle while Rachel Smith, who remains healthy, is a passenger. Spoiler alert: Leng Feng is too sick to drive and they crash.
Celina Jade is the daughter of white American martial artist Roy Horan and Chinese mother Christina Hui. I do not know the details of the casting decision, but her role in the film; the name, the calling of the US embassy; suggests that it is her “whiteness” and “American” background that are being highlighted. Leng Feng’s double conquest then, over Big Daddy and Rachel Prescott, is not just an assertion of nationalized masculinity (or masculine nationalism), but ironically, in a film celebrating Chinese self-confidence, and most problematically, being set in Africa, it nonetheless casts a light skinned “mixed” Chinese-American woman as the object of desire.
Having said all this, black masculinity in the film is almost entirely absent; the male character with the greatest development is Tundu, a young boy separated from his mother, while this separation provides a vehicle to the plot, their scenes seem largely designed to provide comic relief.
That being said, “Africa” does play a role in the film, but the messages about China’s relationship with the continent is less direct or obvious as compared to those about Chinese strength vis-à-vis the United States.
The majority of Chinese projects in Africa are private enterprises. The film’s portrayal of these entrepreneurs, however, is less than flattering. The first one we meet operates a convenience store in the port city. When Leng Feng protests the shopkeeper for price gouging a fellow Chinese citizen, the shopkeeper indicates that within a week he will no longer be a Chinese citizen. When the shop comes under rebel attack, however, and a retreat to the protection of the Chinese Embassy is proposed, the shopkeeper proudly asserts that the embassy will help him because he “is Chinese.” The scene suggests that small shopkeepers like him are opportunistic patriots; abandoning Chinese citizenship when it helps advance their business, but expecting protection and rallying around the flag when they are trouble. There are many Chinese migrant entrepreneurs in Africa who have indeed changed their nationality, although the motivations for this has varied. In Tanzania, for example, citizenship allows one to purchase land (something one can only do as a foreigner if part of corporation or with a local partner). As some explain it, the logic for obtaining citizenship in Tanzania is not unlike that of obtaining a different hukou (household registration) in China. The treatment of such individuals as having abandoned China, however, has of course had a long genealogy in China, going back to imperial-era restrictions against expatriation. What is interesting nonetheless is that the film’s negative portrayal of this behavior resonates with critiques among real Chinese expatriates themselves about the behavior of other Chinese. When I encountered this in the field, it was often accompanied by distinctions of social class, but an important implication of these distinctions was that when such people ran into difficulties with local employees or officials, it was considered to partially be their own fault, and not something which required pan-Chinese solidarity. In the film itself, there is a subtle moment is when we see Leng Feng looking on with amusing (and passive) approval of his young friend Tundu shoplifting from the Chinese shopkeeper. This moment manages to both reinforce a racist trope about black youth as thieves, and at the same time, arouse audience sympathy for this act because he is punishing a Chinese person who cheats Chinese and local alike. It is a moment which reinforces the standpoint of the film as occupying a particular class position, displaying condescension (in the broad sense described by Bourdieu rather than mere snobbishness or hostility) towards both small-scale Chinese migrants to Africa as well as Africans.
The owner of the besieged factory is likewise portrayed unfavorably in both a scene in which he attempts to racially segregate who will be saved and who will be abandoned on the factory floor; when he expels the heroes as a disease threat, and finally in the slapstick comedy of him trying to pick up his scattered cash amid a hail of bullets.
Compared to these two men, the heroes of the film are military men (Leng Feng and He Jianguo), doctors (Dr. Chen), and the Chinese workers who resist their boss’s attempt at racially segregating who will be saved and who will be abandoned. Even the factory’s security guard has an arc which takes him from being a “spoiled brat” (fuerdai) to becoming a hero. The global Chinese presence celebrated in the film is one authored by the government and embodied by soldiers, doctors, workers, and male youth who eventually come around to living up to it. It is interesting that it is the most significant class of Chinese actors in Africa, the entrepreneurs, who are cast as the morally problematic figures in this global China story. While the factory indexes the real world context of Chinese investment, capitalism does not quite fit into the story the film wants to tell, which is relevant to question because it is in fact capitalism which explains much Chinese activity in Africa much more than military strength. The irony is the fact that the film displays the specter of Chinese military imperialism (to a global audience no less) which Chinese state discourse is otherwise always attempting to refute.
At multiple points in the film, the screenplay also creates dramatic tension through posing a question: Are Africans included? That is, in a story fundamentally about the capacity of the Chinese state to protect its citizens from danger, are Africans also lives that count? The film instructs the viewers that they are, and regularly reprimands its own characters for their hesitation. Tundu asks the shopkeeper early in the film if the Chinese Embassy will look after him, the shopkeeper demurs with a “hard to say.” The moral messaging of the film is to routinely correct their prejudices, although the inclusion of Africans is in each case treated as an exceptional decision driven by a moral hero who overcomes boundaries: the ambassador invites citizens into the embassy, Leng Feng claims paternity of Tundu to get him on the naval ship. In the most dramatic scene, the factory manager informs the workers that the rescue mission coming for them is only for the Chinese workers, not the African workers. He attempts to divide the workers by drawing an imaginary wall through the center of the factory floor and asking the Chinese and African workers to separate along it. A Chinese worker refuses to separate from his wife, who is African. We soon discover that there are a multitude of similar relationships, and not just Chinese men and African women, but also African men and Chinese women. The film’s protagonists watch on uncomfortably at the attempt to separate them before finally intervening with a rousing demand that they are in this together. Scenes like these are interesting because they acknowledge the presence of segregating and exclusionary habits within Chinese society. It is notably the workers, the military men, and the doctors, rather than the entrepreneurs, who challenge this, and it is Leng Feng, the embodiment of China’s “new man” in the film, who lectures the factory (and by extension, the Chinese public). It is not quite a speech, however, in the mold of American films which repetitively “overcome” racism by having white heroes (or Denzel Washington) give a speech. The message remains ambiguous. Tundu is accepted by the naval officer as Leng Feng’s “son,” but Tundu has no interest in going to China. Pasha, the girl with natural immunity to the disease, is also the subject of a “fictive” adoption by the deceased Dr. Chen, but her fate too rests at home. The on-screen portrayal of Chinese-African couples is the most interesting, and indeed probably one of the more laudable inclusions in the film, although in the cases I am familiar with, they never quite reach the scale portrayed in this imaginary factory. Furthermore, the whiteness of the main love story received more screen time.
The film portrays a generic “Africa” in which disparate regional elements and stereotypes are packaged in a single country: poverty, civil war, foreign mercenaries, and an Ebola-like disease. This is only marginally an improvement over American films like Tears of the Sun, which used “Nigeria” as a stage prop (The film does not offend by name the sensibilities of any of China’s African allies), but many of the elements are the same. This is not China’s Africa (in the sense of the actually-existing relationships Chinese have there) but Hollywood’s Africa with Chinese rather than American heroes. A mix of languages appear at different moments in the film, but they are not devoid of context. A Chinese expatriate seeks to stave off being shot by a rebel soldier by telling him that Chinese and Africans are “marafiki” (friends). This Swahili phrase is actually the closest the film gets to historical context because it references the construction of Tanzania-Zambia railway, during which time, the greeting of Chinese as “Rafiki” entered Chinese popular culture and has remained a point of reference. In this film, however, Africa is a country and it is played by South Africa (where the film was shot). The opening scene begins by following an “African” river through green plains until it empties out into the big blue sea. It’s probably unintentional, but it’s irresistible to avoid comparing this opening scene to the famous contrast of river and sea in 1988’s River’s Elegy. That film called on a Chinese public in the early reform period to adopt the “open” globalism symbolized by the ocean. In this film, the Chinese are on the sea and kicking pirate ass. Africa is a backdrop rather than a setting. Africa is presented “out of time” in a different historical space. A significant scene occurs when Rachel Smith and Leng Feng are together in a cemetery, looking over the gravestones of both Europeans and Chinese buried there. Rachel tells Leng that humanity originated from Africa, and that many years later, “civilized people” returned to the continent and made their lives here. She delivers the line uncritically and un-ironically, and while the English subtitle at my showing placed “civilized” in scare quotes, the Chinese subtitles did not place wenming in quotes. This is an interesting discrepancy and I am very curious about the discussion that took place when the screenplay was being translated (it is here perhaps that an unreflective concept of “civilization” meets a Western liberal sensibility that ostensibly denies such language even while reproducing it with other categories like “developed” and “undeveloped”). In returning to one’s ancestral home, and being buried in its soil, the film unambiguously places Chinese among Europeans as the “civilized” descendants who left Africa, made their fortunes, and have returned to invest, heal, and protect. This is very different from the narrative of Afro-Asian solidarity which placed Chinese among Africans as the victims of Western imperialism. Instead, China enters the world through Africa.
What is to be concluded from this? Wolf Warrior II may show us how “Africa” signifies in a middlebrow Chinese imagination, but actually tells us very little about the lives, subjectivities, and experiences of the Chinese and “Africans” (of several dozen countries) who actually live these exchanges. It suggests the extent to which a Hollywood trope of Africa ultimately predominates over the kinds of knowledge generated by Chinese themselves. This is not to say there is a purer story to tell (there are some quotes in the film which seem taken directly from Chinese who have been to Africa), but it does suggest that Chinese audiences will get their “Africa” from Hollywood’s imagination longer than might have been expected.