John Pilger’s documentary predicts a horrifying possibility: that China and the US are on the brink of war.
Veteran journalist and war correspondent John Pilger has long been an outspoken critic of US foreign policy and its perceived imperialist agenda. He is a prolific television documentarian, and since 2007’s The War on Democracy, an indictment of intervention in Latin America, his films have also been released in cinemas. His latest feature The Coming War on China focuses on the so-called “pivot” to East Asia, America’s shift in attention toward increased involvement in the Pacific, and the notion that this is part of a policy to hem China in as a means to continue US hegemony in the region.
Pilger’s approach has always been one of firebrand partisanship which holds that there are not so much two sides of a story to be investigated with balance, but a truth to be revealed to redress a dissembler’s version that has too long held sway through western media bias. True to form, there is no pretense of cold distance in The Coming War on China. Pilger glosses over nuanced complexity in favour of an overarching narrative of empire, enacted through a “giant noose” of military bases, coupled with a propaganda push priming the world to regard China as the new enemy. He is front and centre as interviewer and authoritative narrator–at times sardonic and at others hyperbolic and emotive. But this is no superficial grandstanding exercise. A thoughtfully chosen, impressive array of talking heads (including locals sought beyond the spheres of policy and academia) powerfully challenge dominant cultural clichés about East Asian nations and offer first-hand accounts of the pain of the colonised, reinforcing the validity of Pilger’s claims.
Pilger advances his argument through delineated sections, the first–and most rousingly damning–of which sets out America’s long history of human rights abuses and oppression in the Pacific. Archival footage portrays the Marshall Islands as a tropical paradise before it was occupied by the US in World War II and used for testing nuclear weapons. Inhabitants (described in US footage from the time as “happy savages”) became guinea pigs, taken to Chicago and studied for radiation exposure before being sent back to a contaminated home. Many died of cancer, their irradiated forms a far cry from the “bikini” bodies that were the new rage in the West–the swimsuit having been named after the nuclear test atoll further illustrating the West’s callous hypocrisy which is underscored time and again in the film. It’s impossible not to agree with the “apartheid” label Pilger uses for the gulf in living standards brought on by the American presence, as locals of Ebeye Island, now known as the “slum of the Pacific”, are ferried across the bay to work, tending the golf course at a Reagan-era missile site: “A wonderland of suburban good life.”
«Pilger advances his argument through delineated sections, the first of which sets out America’s long history of human rights abuses and oppression in the Pacific.»
Threatening the West’s position of arrogant domination is the renewed fear of a rising China–a nation free from foreign bases upon its territory–with a new outspoken and political class, which is to some degree separate from its vibrant market economy. The film shows that this fear has a long historical precedent, upheld by propagandistic caricatures of the Chinese (we see Boris Karloff in a ‘30s incarnation of evil-genius criminal Fu Manchu, an English invention), which concealed another imperial agenda: opium money, used to build the first US industrial city.
Shifting focus to Shanghai, now a global financial centre as well as a bustling port, Pilger speaks not only with informed colleagues (such as James Bradley, author of The China Mirage) but also Chinese experts such as entrepreneur Eric X. Li who brings a wide cultural view, asserting that the myth that China wants to replace or aggressively convert America needs to be dispelled. As leading voice on China’s developmental model Professor Zhang Weiwei adeptly points out, “If you contend with stereotypes, you miss so many things.” Pilger does mention human rights abuses and repression of dissent by the Chinese state against its own people, but only after showing that the US hardly holds a moral high ground.
The final part, in attempting to portray a uniform will of resistance to a brutal and provocative US imperialism across a peace-loving East Asia, is the most simplistically reductive. A large relief sculpture on Okinawa by Japanese sculptor Minoru Kinjo installed on a former US military base is shown, a tribute we are told to the people’s resistance. Another memorial in South Korea follows, with the observation that the symbols of struggle of “island people for freedom” are remarkably similar.
«This is a robust and convincing vision of coming war that dares not preach to the choir, as it entreats a western audience to re-examine what they think they know.»
There is no doubting the depth of the suffering referenced here–though the easy equivalences Pilger draws are at risk of minimising fierce historical resentments between East Asian nations (Japan’s treatment of colonial Korea is still an open wound), as well as their differences: the generationally divided ambivalence in Korean attitudes to the US military presence also remains unsaid. Quibbles aside, this is a robust and convincing vision of coming war that dares not preach to the choir, as it entreats a western audience to re-examine what they think they know. Asking whether Trump will take us to the brink of a military build-up accelerated under Obama, Pilger also leaves us with a consoling (or exacting?) coda to his doomsday tone: that ordinary people are “a super-power” that can–and must–act in time.