Christian Bale visited Linyi – Does foreign pressure mean anything to the Chinese gov’t?

As a China blogger, it’s a pretty big week, open rebellion in Wukan has attracted a flock of journalist, and then Hollywood star Christian Bale/Batman attempted to visit blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. The big question floating around at the moment is does foreign pressure mean anything to China?

Before I address that question I would first like to point out that Christian Bale has created one heck of a dilemma for China’s censors. The media gears have been spinning wildly to promote his new film, The Flowers of War, which opens today in China. I passed Mr. Bale’s image at least 4-5 times just on my way to work this morning. How are they going to block discussion of his trip to Linyi without limiting the reach of what has been called a propaganda film?

The film has been criticized overseas already for portraying the Japanese soldiers as monochrome monsters, and I am worried that the film will be fraught with historical inaccuracies (the Rape of Nanking is something I have spent a considerable amount of time researching). He also hasn’t given the most impressive answers to questions asked about the film.

That being said, his trip to Linyi is nonetheless heroic. The video of him being chased out of the village has refocused the spotlight on Linyi, at a moment when efforts from Chinese activists were waning. Both Yaxue and myself were overwhelmed upon hearing that a prominent westerner finally made the trip, knowing in advance what the result would be. I’m sure many other Chinese were moved by this as well.

So will Bale’s visit to Linyi and the media gathering in Wukan help or hurt the situation?

Many observers worry that foreign coverage will allow the Party to label these incidents the result of foreign involvement, but there is a growing gap between what the gov’t says and what the people believe (as evidenced by the air monitoring debate in Beijing). Claims of “foreign involvement” have already been made in both places, and have been soundly rejected by Chinese activists. In one case, a prominent commentator claimed that Chen had been funded by foreign forces and was met with a lengthy confrontation by a young woman wearing sunglasses, a symbol of Chen’s supporters, demanding proof that he couldn’t provide. The video spread quickly across Chinese forums.

In Wukan, foreign journalists are reporting that the villagers are very much aware of the danger that comes with communicating these problems beyond China’s borders, but they feel it’s the only way to get China’s gov’t to act. One journalist, Tom Lasseter, tried to buy toothpaste from one of the shops in Wukan, but the manager wouldn’t accept his money and thanked him for being present. In both places, Chinese villagers/activists have sought foreign attention.

In the situation of Wukan the villagers still firmly believe that the central gov’t will help rescue them from the clutches of the corrupt local officials. Activists in the Chen Guangcheng case continue to press the fact that his detention is illegal, and hope that the central gov’t will push the local gov’t to set Chen and his family free.

Both cases rely on action from the Central gov’t, which prefers to plead ignorance about problems caused by local gov’ts. Foreign media coverage will very likely force some kind of resolution, whether or not that is a positive is impossible to know.

This brings us to another one of the big problems with this question: it assumes China and its people are one homogeneous mass. Within China there are currently two factions competing for future control of the Party. One seeks to further liberalize the economy and promotes grass root efforts; the other urges the Party to reassert itself as the sole power.

While this blog often focuses on the activities of China’s netizens that are pushing for reform, it is important to remember that China’s internet is also home to a large group of Nationalists who would urge the Party not to appear weak in front of foreign cameras (remember what happened in a certain square in ’89).

The central government’s reaction to either of these situations could signal China’s future direction, and the Party prefers to communicate through drastic measures. A shift towards liberalization and democracy, might be shown with investigations into local officials, demotions and possibly executions. A shift back to centralized power could include investigations of local “agitators”, as well as lengthy jail terms and possibly executions.

There is also a third group to consider, perhaps the largest, that is indifferent when it comes to these issues; the side that doesn’t want to discuss “unhappy things” as a co-worker calls them. This group shrinks each time something happens in a place that reminds them of their hometown.

Ge Xun, an activist involved with Chen’s case, told me, “In my view all publicity will help. I am one who believes in openness (no face saving backroom deals), and that freedom is something that people are born with, it is not given or granted. No one can regain their freedom once it has been taken away by begging, it must be fought for.” Today that fight involves a man and his family in Linyi, and a village of farmers and fishermen in Wukan, struggling to regain what has been taken from them. Whether the Central gov’t decides to side with the people or the corrupt officials, we will be watching.

20 responses to “Christian Bale visited Linyi – Does foreign pressure mean anything to the Chinese gov’t?”

  1. G says:

    Just this morning I will be asking “who is Bale” and now I am officially his fan, for his visit, or attempted visit, to Chen. Batman is cool but this is real, less visual but much cooler than the screenplay. I am a in and out Chinese living here for my life and I assure you all these will help, lesser and lesser still believe those “foreign conspiracy” thing and regard those as shit. Change will come, as real as anything.

  2. joesix says:

    I just filled out a five page application for a tourist visa for my trip to Beijing. They ask for a ridiculous amount of information that makes me think I could be checked in on to avoid spreading American pride. It’s unnerving, but now I just want to see where Christian Bale was punched in the face.

  3. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

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  4. sculptsone says:

    Excellent post. It is especially important that you clarified the issue by letting people know that there are several factions in China. It is understandable, but sad, that the biggest faction doesn’t care and doesn’t want to get involved. This is changing.

    Your work is important. Please keep it up……………….ben

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    Bale’s attempted visit is going viral online in China. The posts are being deleted, but netizens are keeping it up too. While I still don’t have my account back, a friend of mine told me that all yesterday afternoon he did nothing but post, repost, re-re-post the news until his account was blocked. Then he came back right away with his 13th “reincarnation” (see my explanation of the “reincarnation party” in the comment section ( ).

    The free CGC website has compiled several cool Bale vs. Chinese thugs “movie” posts made by incredibly talented Chinese netizens. Must take a look!

  6. Lorin Yochim says:

    This is a good exploration, Tom, especially of the variety of positions taken by Chinese (are you surprised that I appreciate this?). It seems, as others have pointed out, that there is no doubt that the Chinese gov’t does care about foreign coverage. If it were not so, there would be no response at all.

    RE “A shift towards liberalization and democracy, might be shown with investigations into local officials, demotions and possibly executions. A shift back to centralized power could include investigations of local “agitators”, as well as lengthy jail terms and possibly executions”, I’d like to posit a slightly different interpretation of potential responses to these crises. None of the concrete actions you suggest here are necessarily aligned with liberalization and democracy, as your ambiguity (you have two “coulds” here) suggest. I would say that a reassertion of centralized power (which seems to be the demand of the villages of Wukan, and indirectly in Linyi) could lead to any or all of these actions. As to liberalization, it is economic liberalization (in the political economic sense of the term) that is the source of conflict in Wukan. The deep commitment of the Party technocracy to this kind of liberalization is precisely what disallows the development of meaningful liberalization as democracy. I speculate that the hesitation to intervene in Wukan signals a reluctance to side with the villagers because their nominally democratic demands threaten the present developmental path which relies precisely on liberalization without democracy.

  7. Chip says:

    All I can say is that my opinion of Christian Bale has gone up immensely, good for him.

  8. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China中文 ← Christian Bale visited Linyi – Does foreign pressure mean anything to the Chinese … […]

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  14. Tom, this was a terrific article – and the links were fantastic. I clicked on your blog, cruising the tags ‘human rights’ and I LOVE YOUR NAME – “Seeing Red in China”. It’s excellent. I have a strong, strong and deep affiliation with China. I’m a Polish-Australian single mother of one, my son being Eurasian – so don’t picture me as Chinese born or anything, but I’ve read heaps of books on China, the Tianenman (can NEVER spell that) massacre etc. I’m going to cruise around your pages – excellent post.

  15. I just read the New Yorker piece on Bale, and the piece on Chen Guangcheng. There is just so much to all this. I really cry at this, the human rights issues of China. Kevin Rudd can speak Chinese. He needs to actually SAY something.

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