Wolf Warrior II has been a runaway movie triumph since being released in 2017 – even though it contains controversial expressions of Chinese nationalism and racist stereotypes of Africans.
Grossing more than US$800 million at the domestic box office, it is one of China’s most commercially successful films. Only Star Wars: The Force Awakens has performed better in a single market.
The film tells the story of an exiled elite Chinese soldier who travels to an unnamed African country on a personal matter. He gets caught in the middle of a civil war between government troops and mercenaries. The hero rescues African and Chinese civilians and defeats the mercenaries.
In a recent analysis, we argue that the movie does more than reproduce clichés from Hollywood action cinema. It is also an expression of how China sees its global status today, a status developed across its post-revolutionary and post-socialist periods from the mid-1970s.
Our study of the film identifies the historical precedents and ideological shifts within the nationalist discourse of “China in Africa”. We also provide a contemporary context for the power dynamics between China and African states.
The tide of westernization sweeping China since the 1980s weakened its focus on African countries once considered allies. Media coverage of the continent dwindled in China.
State media outlets such as Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily diminished their focus on the region and the commercial ones found it “not attractive enough to make a huge investment.”
At the same time, the influx of Western and Hollywood films filled the gap in the public perception of the continent.
African countries, once portrayed as beacons of modernity, began to be shown as having poor, lagging economies. This is evident in the scenes of slums and the plots of war and plague in the fictional Africa of Wolf Warrior II.
Since 2010, China’s African engagement has entered a new phase. It is centered on the Belt and Road Initiative, which promotes infrastructure development in more than 150 nations in the world.
The historical narrative of friendship between China and Africa has reappeared in Chinese mainstream national media. It’s getting renewed attention due to economic incentives in the form of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, a platform established by Beijing to strengthen multilateral relations.
The caricatured representations of Africa in Wolf Warrior II comprise a patchwork of memories from different historical periods.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the region was commonly represented in China as a close “third world” brother. The 1980s to the 2000s presented Africa as a poor stranger. Finally, in the 2010s Africa is a business partner of the Belt and Road Initiative.
These different narratives can sometimes overlap. The movie brings together a montage of elements such as Somali pirates, Ebola, impoverished townships in South Africa, and the Libyan Civil War. This creates a pan-African stereotype that serves mainly to support China’s nationalistic imagination of the rise of the country as a global leader.
Indeed, elements of the relationship from different historical periods are used to create a benevolent role for China in Africa.
The film depicts friendship and aid, poverty-stricken Africa, and the leadership of China in the global south. Such depictions of a “generous” ally cloud the unequal power dynamics embedded in the Belt and Road Initiative.
In Wolf Warrior II, China is a beacon of hope, development and peace in Africa. A lead female character, for example, discovers the cure for a fatal disease. A Chinese-owned factory provides jobs and asylum during scenes of conflict.
In the film, the Chinese government exercises diplomatic generosity by accepting an official request for military assistance from the local government to fight the rebels.
This benevolence is presented in contrast to absentee American and bloodthirsty European mercenaries. As academics have observed, Wolf Warrior II appears to present “a new master race that has arrived to displace the whites as a savior of an ‘Africa’ ravaged by civil war, political chaos, starvation, and deadly disease.”
As the representative of this “master race,” the lead character, Feng, becomes a messianic figure. Speaking about incarcerated Chinese and African workers, he claims, “I was born for them.” The film closes with Feng holding up the Chinese flag, leading survivors of conflict on a truck to a United Nations sanctuary.
It has been five years since the release of Wolf Warrior II. Yet the nationalism and racism seen in the film have not faded within China. Indeed they have grown stronger, especially on social media.
Against this backdrop, the “China in Africa” shown in Wolf Warrior II seems to fall back once again on the Third World Alliance of the Maoist era. But the regional inequality between China and African countries goes well beyond Cold War-era relations.
Rather, Wolf Warrior II dramatizes emerging political and economic relations within the global south that are likely to generate new variations of the “China in Africa” narrative. These answer to a much more complicated political and economic role for Beijing in the post-pandemic era that foresees a new divided world order.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.