Battle at Lake Changjin: Will we choose pride, prejudice, propaganda – or peace?

Oct 9, 2023
HANGZHOU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 6, 2022 - A young audience watches a film clip of

The second highest grossing film in the world in 2021 barely got a mention in the Australian press. It was co-directed by three acclaimed filmmakers, cost close to US$200 million to produce, made $1 billion, and was nearly three hours long with a sequel of equal length. It ran briefly at the Event Cinema in Sydney. But few in Australia saw or heard of it.

The film was The Battle at Lake Changjin. Its directors were Chen Kaige, Dante Lam and Tsui Hark, and it was commissioned by the government of China. I watched it with special interest as my son was a second unit director on the production. I had heard all about the long overnight shoots, the frigid conditions in Northeast China, and the commitment to shine a light on what the Korean War was about for the Chinese, how they experienced it and why they got involved in the first place.

I was familiar with the popular Western narrative: That the Chinese were motivated to fight in Korea by a combination of what Hao and Zhai have called “xenophobic attitudes, security concerns, expansionist tendencies and the communist ideology”. But I had always wondered whether this one-sided view was historically correct. What was fact and what fictitious spin? The Japanese defeat in 1945 ended 35 years of colonisation. The victors at the UN proposed a division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Kim Il-sung challenged this arbitrary divide and attempted to re-unify the country. A UN force of mainly American troops defeated Kim’s “invasion”, then invaded North Korea. MacArthur made it known his target was the Yalu River, the border with China. But why would China, itself only recently unified after 100 years of civil war and invasion, get involved in a military conflict with the United States, the world’s most powerful country? What led the Chinese to enter a war on behalf of North Korea?

Australian historian and supreme court judge Michael Pembroke in his 2018 book Korea – where the American Century began says that the war was really about imposing “regime change” in the north and staging a “showdown with communism” at the Chinese border. The consequences for the Chinese were costly. In November 1950, the victorious but exhausted Peoples Volunteer Army rushed north to defend their border. At the battle of Lake Changjin, they succeeded in defeating the well-equipped American force. During their retreat, the Americans practised scorched earth tactics using napalm and aerial bombs to destroy every village, food store, installation, hospital. “Nothing was left for the enemy – or for the civilians”. North Korea has never fully recovered. Four million people died. Was it worth it? It depends on who’s telling the story.

MacArthur later explained that he had “wanted to use atomic bombs to contain China and ultimately win the Korean War”. His view found favour in Washington. In later interviews, he expressed his frustration: “It was in our power to destroy the Red Chinese Army and Chinese military power… and take care of the ‘Communist threat’.” The “communist threat” became the handy rationale for Korea, Vietnam and other wars until it was temporarily replaced by the “Islamic threat”. But now it is back.

In the fictionalised film script about two brothers at Lake Changjin, the directors presented a story of Chinese valour and victory against the odds. Little wonder the film was received with pride in China and buried with prejudice in the West. We rarely hear the Chinese or Afghani or Iranian versions of events, only the regime-changing scenarios deemed necessary to uphold “the international rules-based order”. It got me thinking again about pride, prejudice and propaganda. Exactly whose “rules” are we talking about? And have these rules delivered the vaunted prosperity and “order” they proclaim? It all depends which side you’re on and which version of events gets told in which language on which screen or platform.

When Hollywood tells a yarn about plucky pioneers “overcoming” the Indians (viz Northwest Passage) or a heroic pilot overcoming the odds (Top Gun: Maverick), the myth of a binary righteous order of things, the good guys prevailing over the bad guys, is upheld. Top Gun: Maverick is only the latest collaboration between the movie industry and the government to spread the message of US power. The Department of Defence willingly loans out its most expensive hardware in return for covert co-production access on thousands of movies, going back to the 1927 Oscar-winner Wings – the Top Gun of its day. Others include Apollo 13 (1995), Crimson Tide (1995), Battleship (2012), Armageddon (1998), Men of Honour (2000), Pearl Harbour (2006). With army, navy, air force and Pentagon entertainment liaison offices in Los Angeles, it is little wonder Hollywood has been called the military’s propaganda machine!

If you’re the “bad guy” and from a different culture, you stand little chance against this multi-billion-dollar publicity apparatus. Non-English productions must be dubbed or subtitled. Much is lost in translation and easily misinterpreted or actively misrepresented in reviews. National pride is relabelled xenophobia or a plot to take over the world. And with the Western media’s current taste for “bad China” stories, it’s easy to see how China and Chinese get dehumanised and ridiculed as the new enemy threatening our order. Context and causality are entirely missing in scripts and in the sound bites which our politicians routinely mouth: China has the “biggest military build-up in history”, while commentators fail to add that the USA accounts for 40 percent of global military spending, equivalent to the next ten countries combined, including China at 13 percent. In 2022, US$2.24 trillion was spent arming for war instead of investing in peace.

As trusted allies of “the leader of the free world”, do we keep mouthing the calculated war propaganda or do we set an example by fostering “a world where no country dominates, and no country is dominated,” in our Foreign Minister’s words. We only ever have two choices, according to Martin Luther King: “to learn to live together as brothers (read, human family) or die together as fools”. Mother Nature seems to be telling us to put aside our pride, prejudice and propaganda of mutually assured destruction – and choose to live together constructively in peace before it’s too late.


Read more articles in our China Perspectives series below:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media


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