Last month during Lunar New Year, I watched China’s sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth in a packed theater in Beijing. The film is a post-apocalyptic tale set in the future about Earth’s imminent crash into another planet and a group of family members and soldiers’ efforts to save it. Directed by Frank Gwo and based on a short story by acclaimed sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, The Wandering Earth has become the second-highest grossing non-English film of all time and has received a limited release in the US. Netflix has also recently announced plans to distribute the film worldwide.
In a time in which the US is accusing and imprisoning Chinese people for espionage and the US-China trade war is increasingly contentious, the Western media’s reaction to The Wandering Earth provides a lens to understand the West’s greater narratives about China. Despite the film’s rich critiques and commentary on capitalism, Western hegemony, and the US, the West’s media has largely ignored the film’s actual content. Instead, they have projected Orientalist tropes onto the film.
The narratives that have manifested in the West’s reception to The Wandering Earth are emblematic of broader narratives about China that the West propagates. The West portrays Chinese people as a horde of robots under high-tech authoritarian rule who are coming to brainwash the West. These Orientalist narratives evince their own insecurities and anxieties of China. The US and the West fear that China is taking its place at the top of the global political ladder, and fear China as a yellow peril threat to Western capitalism and hegemony. Thus, they deploy and propagate these Orientalist narratives about China as a means to defend its Western imperialism from the threat that they perceive China to be.
What The Wandering Earth says about climate change and capitalism
Through a series of flashbacks, viewers learn that 17 years prior to present day in the film, the Sun started dangerously expanding. To prevent the Sun from consuming Earth, all of the world’s countries consolidated into one world government, the United Earth Government, and built 10,000 gigantic jet thrusters on one side of Earth to constantly push it away from the Sun. As a result, the Earth’s surface has become an uninhabitable freezing tundra, and the world’s population is forced to live in a series of vast underground cities.
Fast forward to present day, Earth has suddenly become sucked into Jupiter's orbit, forcing the jets to break down. To keep Earth from crashing into Jupiter and killing the world’s population, soldiers from every country embark on missions to restart the jets in their regions.
“The film sends the message that international cooperation is necessary to address climate change and criticizes the US for its failure to do the same”
The film focuses on Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao), his younger adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), and their grandfather Han Zi'ang (Ng Man-tat). The family possesses a truck that a team of Chinese soldiers needs and are thus enlisted to help restart jet thrusters throughout Asia. Meanwhile, Liu Qi’s father, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), is an astronaut who supports the group from an international space station as they try to reignite the jet thrusters and prevent Earth from crashing into Jupiter.
The Wandering Earth’s global disasters are clear analogies for the current climate change and environmental issues the world faces. The film sends the message that international cooperation is necessary to address climate change and criticizes the US for its failure to do the same.
As the world’s soldiers are on missions to reignite the jet thrusters, the United Earth Government broadcasts to the world telling the soldiers to go home and that there is no viable way to avoid Jupiter and Earth’s demise. Meanwhile, the Chinese team defies United Earth orders and hatches a plan to explode a jet thruster in Indonesia. The team realizes it lacks the manpower to succeed, so Han Duoduo broadcasts to the world’s soldiers begging them for help and to “fight together” with China to “save our planet.” Soldiers from numerous countries—including Russia, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan—rush to Indonesia to help the Chinese team.
Collectively and literally, the soldiers from the world’s countries push a piece of the jet thruster into place and save Earth, delivering a message that the real world’s imminent environmental problems can only be solved through global cooperation. Yet, conspicuously absent throughout the film and the denouement is the US.
This intentional omission is likely a reference to the real-life failures of the US to cooperatively address environmental issues. The Trump administration’s position has been to “ignore climate change and pretend it doesn’t exist,” mock and bury scientific findings on climate change, and seek to significantly cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, in 2018 when the National Resources Defense Council, a US-based environmental non-profit group, released a report praising China’s efforts to address climate change while criticizing US failures, House Republicans accused it of being a “foreign agent” of China.
In the lead up to the US withdrawal from the UN Paris climate agreement, Trump “dismissed climate change as a Chinese ‘hoax.’” China’s President Xi Jinping issued what was considered a “direct challenge” to these views, saying in an address to the UN, “There is only one Earth in the universe and we mankind have only one homeland.”
In response to Trump’s sudden withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and becoming the only country in the world to remain outside of it, China and the EU quickly filled the gap and forged “an alliance to take a leading role in tackling climate change.” Xi emphasized the need for global cooperation: “All parties should work together to implement the Paris agreement. China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations.”
While the US is failing to take a global lead in addressing climate change, China has been proactive, including becoming the global leader in renewable energy technology, implementing a three-year “green” plan, and investing billions in China’s transition to a greener economy.
The Wandering Earth also critiques capitalism, both in China and the West. In one scene, as the group made up of Chinese soldiers and Liu Qi, Han Duoduo, and Han Zi’ang travel through a post-apocalyptic Shanghai in search of the next jet thruster they need to reignite, Han Zi’ang explains to the group what Shanghai, his hometown, was like before the world froze over and people were pushed underground. He explains, “Everyone was concerned about a thing called money,” implying that the current world is a non-capitalist society that operates without money.
The camera pans across Shanghai as a desolate and frozen tundra before landing on an abandoned and broken-down 2044 Olympic stadium. The image of the stadium is perhaps a reference to the ardent protest and criticism of the Chinese government’s decision to host the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics and the economic and social harm that Beijing’s 2008 Olympics had in China. The depiction of Shanghai—a glistening symbol of China’s capitalism and often referred to as the financial and economic center of China—now broken down and destroyed provides a clear critique of the ravages of capitalism.
In addition, as other writers on Weibo have noticed, the underground cities may be socialist communes based on the industrial and utilitarian nature of the people’s dress, similar styles to the Cultural Revolution era, and the suggestion that the underground societies do not use money.
What Western media got wrong about The Wandering Earth
Interestingly, there is no substantial mention of any of these themes in Western media’s coverage of the film. Instead, they have dismissed the film as a rip-off of US films, lambasted it as propaganda to brainwash the West, and projected tropes of Chinese people as a yellow peril horde.
Literary theorist and the founder of postcolonial studies Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” and defined it as “the way that the West perceives—and thereby defines—the East.”
As discussed in John Kuo Wei Tchen’s Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear, “yellow peril” is a pervasive racist and xenophobic perception by the West of the East as an ominous and menacing horde. Fears of “yellow peril” have motivated cultural images and aggressive actions by the US, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and anti-Japanese propaganda during World War II.
Western media have interpreted the film to be authoritarian propaganda proclaiming that only China can solve environmental issues.
The Washington Post wrote, “[The Wandering Earth is] a prototype for exporting an image of China as the leader of the future,” and “in this fantasy, only Chinese leaders can be relied on in a crisis. Only Chinese engineers know how to effectively manage the complex systems of the future.”
Similarly, Slate wrote, “The Wandering Earth arguably reflects the Chinese party line that bureaucracy can manage doom via central planning and clever engineering. The urgency of the crisis leaves no room for dissent.”
In its subheading on its piece describing the film, Slate wrote, “Authoritarian? Yes. Propaganda? Maybe.”
“When the US releases a propaganda film, it is often applauded as a win for patriotism. But when China releases a blockbuster, the film is dismissed as a ploy to brainwash the West”
These writers have projected a message of Chinese authoritarianism despite the film’s clear theme of international cooperation, the lack of nearly any mention of the Chinese government, and the denouement showing soldiers from all over the world collectively saving Earth.
The People’s Daily, the biggest newspaper group in China, in fact observed that The Wandering Earth is meant to emphasize international cooperation and go against the Western superhero trope of one man, one country saving Earth.
Fan Yongpeng, an associate dean at Fudan University, says there is a double standard at work. In a viral video, Fan compares the criteria for getting saved in The Wandering Earth to the criteria in the American sci-fi blockbusters 2012 and Intersteller. In The Wandering Earth, the bar for who can go underground is lottery, young age, and special ability. In contrast, 2012’s criteria for admittance to a Noah’s Ark ship are upper class status, gene diversity, and wealth, while in Intersteller, the three criteria are American, American, American.
Fan argues, “How can [The Wandering Earth’s] random lottery be totalitarianism, when in 2012, the Queen of England got to save her dog [over the lives of others]. Is this not totalitarianism? In Intersteller, only Americans were featured and saved in the film. Yet there is no criticism of these films as totalitarianism.”
Nearly every American action and sci-fi blockbuster such as Armageddon and Independence Day is aggressively drenched in propaganda and hyper-nationalism. When the US releases a propaganda film, it is often applauded as a win for patriotism and heroism. But when China releases a blockbuster with far tamer themes of nationalism, the film is dismissed as a ploy to brainwash the West.
And despite Slate’s claims that there is “no room for dissent,” the critiques of the Chinese government are plentiful, such as of the government’s handling of capitalism and the Olympics. On pollution, Liu Qiu quips that his father once told him to look up at the stars in Beijing only to realize that you cannot see the stars in Beijing. The theater audience in Beijing broke out in laughter.
In reality, the state is hardly touched upon. As one Weibo user posted, “This film has weakened the concept of the state to the point where it is barely mentioned, and it is the United Earth Government from beginning to end.” The user goes on to ask, “Is it because Chinese people led the rescue of the Earth that people think this film is blind patriotism? Is it only when Americans save the planet is it internationalism?”
Even when Western writers picked up on the international cooperation theme, they projected onto it the Eastern collectivism vs. Western individualism stereotypes. The Verge wrote that the film “puts a strong focus on global collective action” and “the will of the group over the will of the individual.”
The Washington Post stated, “The film is an engaging spectacle which presents a clear model for the country’s ascent: one invested in technological advancement and the sacrifices of its people.”
Portraying the “East” as inherently more collective and the West as individualistic is a trope rooted in Orientalist conceptions of Asian people. While white Westerners have the humanity to be treated as individuals, Asian people are stripped of their individuality and humanity.
As pointed out in this viral piece on Weibo, the film’s plot is quite the opposite; themes of defying authority and individualism are prominent throughout. The plot centers around the Chinese team defying the United Earth Government’s orders and hatching their own plan to save Earth.
In fact, the ultimate resolution is achieved only when Liu Peiqiang convinces a United Earth Government representative to allow Han Duoduo to access the international radio channels to ask the world’s countries for help. The representative states that “as a private individual” Han can defy the government and whether other countries’ soldiers join in “will be up to the will of each individual.”
“To the West, China is a threat to Western hegemony and its grip on wealth and global power”
A significant subplot of the film is Liu Peiqiang’s struggle against the international space station’s AI operating software, MOSS. The software, an arm of the United Earth Government, forces the space station’s astronauts into a chemically induced deep sleep to prevent them from finding out that the United Earth Government has given up on saving Earth. Through a series of fights, Liu Peiqiang resists being put to sleep and ultimately sets MOSS on fire to help the team on Earth defy the United Earth Government’s orders.
In this age of globalization and digital media, old Orientalist themes have become intertwined with themes of technology.
In the book Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, the editors define “techno-Orientalism” as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in cultural productions and political discourse… Techno-Orientalist discourse constructs Asians as the cogs of hyperproduction and maintains a prevailing sense of the inhumanity of Asian labor—the very antithesis of Western liberal humanism.”
A review in Slate likened China to its “manic rate of construction and grandness of organizational possibility.” The Washington Post wrote that the film’s “plot also neatly encapsulates the government’s vision: China’s present is only prologue to its future technological dominance. That technological dominance is an unquestionable good.”
These techno-Orientalist narratives dehumanize Asian people by portraying us as robots that are preternaturally technologically advanced but lack the individual humanity of white Westerners. As Techno-Orientalism explained, “Glossy spreads of endless rows of Chinese workers in corporate factories and towns in mainstream magazines such as Time and Wired seal the visual vocabulary of Asians as the cogs of hyperproduction.”
Numerous Western media outlets have also dismissed The Wandering Earth for being a simple rip-off of American films. The Daily Beast wrote, “Swap out Frant for Bay and the Chinese cast for Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, and you'd still have pretty much the same flick. Only the national flags on the spaceships and spacesuits would be different.”
Similarly, Slate wrote, “You could spend a lot of The Wandering Earth counting the movies it borrows from: the terrifying indifference of space in Gravity, the frustration at humanity’s myopia in Arrival, the know-it-all-ism and insistent red glare of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The New York Times even attributed the film’s Lunar New Year setting to an imitation, despite it being a very common release period and setting in Chinese films. The film “draws on a barely digested stew of planetary-cataclysm movies, with the eco-catastrophe and invasion films of Roland Emmerich serving as the most obvious spiritual guides. (Even a Chinese New Year setting correlates to the July 4 timing of Emmerich’s Independence Day.)”
Although all art is inspired by other art, the fixation by Western media on dismissing The Wandering Earth as merely an imitation of the West implies that the movie is somehow less original and less valuable compared to Western movies in the same genre. In fact, much of the film’s original content such as its critiques of capitalism, Western hegemony, and environmental issues was overlooked or not mentioned.
To the West, China is a threat to Western hegemony and its grip on wealth and global power. Western media’s projection of techno-Orientalist brainwashing and authoritarian themes go far beyond The Wandering Earth. They are prominent in Western news coverage that portrays China as a hyper-technological “creepy digital panopticon” as Bloomberg puts it and Chinese people as mindless robots controlled by China’s “high-tech authoritarian future” as The New York Times puts it. Examples of Western media articles and videos projecting techno-orientalist conceptions onto Chinese people abound. Meanwhile, the US government itself operates one of the largest facial recognition systems in the world that is used to track and surveil people and has recently been found to be using images of immigrants, abused children, and dead people to test their facial recognition systems, all without consent.
Orientalist and techno-Orientalist narratives also underlie current global political events and have real-life consequences. As the US-China trade war conflict intensifies, the US is rounding up and falsely imprisoning Chinese people for “espionage,” while launching accusations of high-tech invasion against China. The Trump administration is scrutinizing Chinese students in “witch hunts” and has placed strict restrictions including shortening the length on student visas to certain Chinese students. Trump also reportedly implied about China that “almost every student that comes over from that country is a spy.” In response to Trump and the US’ recent accusations that Chinese company Huawei’s 5G technology poses a national security and espionage threat, many European and US allies’ political and tech industry leaders stated that the accusations of spying are not “grounded” in actual “evidence” or “fact” and are motivated out of US desire to protect its economic wealth and dominance.
“China is a screen on which the West projects its fears of being colonized, mechanized, and instrumentalized in its own pursuit of technological dominance,” write the editors of Techno-Orientalism. “The discourse on China’s ‘rise’ in the US context, consistent with techno-Orientalist contradictions, has focused on constructing its people as a vast, subaltern-like labor force and as a giant consumer market.”
Ultimately, the issue is not about whether one country is better than the other. The issue is the white West’s deployment of racist narratives about non-white and non-Western countries. While the West and the US have long held a monopoly on the use of film, entertainment, and media to establish global cultural dominance and propagate its narratives about non-white and non-Western people, The Wandering Earth provides a narrative that decenters and critiques the West. In turn, the West’s hostile reaction to the film and its critique of the West provides a lens to understand the broader Orientalist narratives that the West disseminates about China.