Chinese propaganda has come to Indonesia, big time.

Apr 22, 2021

Before you book a flight to Aotearoa in the travel bubble, think again.  There are other places with knockout scenery, higher mountains, clear lakes and splendid grasslands.  The roads are straight and free of cluttering campervans.  Better still, the sunny locals are keen to share their exotic cuisine and rich culture of singing, dancing, equestrian skills and falconry. 

Unfortunately, the commercial for this nirvana runs for 100 minutes, leaving potential travellers wondering: Is this too good to be true?

Yes. China’s latest hearts-and-minds assault on Indonesia and its neighbours – reportedly its biggest in 25 years – to offset charges of human rights abuses against Muslims, is to give critics the flick. Literally.

The cavorting extras in The Wings of Songs (not to be confused with Felix Mendelssohn’s 1834 classic On Wings of Song) are shown as the happiest people living in the best of all possible worlds. But to sneer is to miss the bigger picture.

Three brooding musos from different ethnic groups find doting ladies while searching for the meaning of life by wandering the wilderness.  Motoring along the Karakoram Highway towards Muztagh Ada, 7,546 metres, fan girl Qing Lang feels crook.

Her colleagues immediately diagnose altitude sickness, selflessly abandon performances and rush her to a fine hospital with caring staff.  English sub-titles top the mountain at ’11,500 inches’ proving the producers don’t care a damn about nit-picking Western viewers, though many scenes look more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Lion Dance.

The target is the weary wanting to put their feet up for an afternoon’s relief, no mental exertion required as it’s full of the familiar clichés of pop cinema, albeit last century. 

This may be tiresome agitprop, but for audiences fed up with blame and shame politics and thrust into distrust of the media by Trump’s ‘fake news’ attacks, this is welcome escapism, courtesy of Red Bollywood.  It’s also a watchable laugh-out-loud pastime – though that’s inadvertent.

Few will stay for the credits to discover the Party Committee Propaganda Department CPC (Communist Party of China) funded the fun – and if they do, who cares?  Capitalism plays this script too.

The commercial film business thrives on taxpayer support.  Last July Scott Morrison spent AUD 400 million to lure foreign film and TV productions Down Under.  The US military helps with locations and equipment for films like Top Gun which has so far grossed AUD 470 million, three times its production cost. Producer John Davis said the movie was a recruiting tool for the Navy.

Seen this way, The Wings of Songs is Beijing’s recruiting tool for the hearts and minds of millions of Asians who might mildly wonder whether US demonisations of its rival are true or beat-ups.

Indonesians are avid watchers of plot-thin sinetron (soapies) where scripts are in the teleprompter minutes ahead of the takes.  The industry is dominated by Indian producers in Jakarta who’ve developed the mind-rot virus and spread it far.

The Middle Kingdom has seen the style – soft drama works better than hard threats. (Indonesians already get Chinese travel docs on their small screens so know how lovely the land).

Now film is being used to explain the social engineering policies behind non-Han minorities allegedly working as forced labour in vocational training centres/boarding schools/concentration camps.

Up to two million are locked into coarse high-walled buildings cornered by watchtowers, according to the US State Department.  Some former detainees claim they’ve been indoctrinated, sexually abused and forcibly sterilised.

This month China’s ambassador Cheng Jingye told Canberra journos criticism was based on “Western lies”, “fabrications” and “anti-China forces”.

Beijing counters that it’s trying to thwart the spread of religious extremism and separatism.  This line resonates with Indonesians fearing terrorist attacks; the populace is regularly reminded to watch for threats likely to fracture the ‘Unitary State’.

The Wings of Songs can be seen at no cost on the Web.  It was shot in and around Kashgar, the Silk Road city where most of the 720,000 occupants are Muslim Uyghurs.

Naive viewers wouldn’t know the folks’ faith because the women are bare-headed and the blokes booze.  The yellow-walled Id Kahn, the largest mosque in Xinjiang Prefecture and an allure for serious tourists, doesn’t get to display its 15th-century architecture.

Also absent are the grim-visaged police who star in covertly-filmed docos standing under banks of rotating CCTV lenses. Instead, we get a feast of colour in the markets where all fare is wholesome and the only cameras are smartphones in the clapping crowds.

Quin Lang effuses with a line worthy of the late satirist John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, who moved from NZ to Australia: “I was attracted here by various minorities and cultures.”

Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert in Chinese politics at NZ’s University of Canterbury reportedly reckons the Xinjiang offensive is the biggest international propaganda campaign on a single topic she’s seen in 25 years of research:

“It’s shrill and dogmatic, it’s increasingly aggressive. And it will keep on going, whether it is effective or not.”

After guffawing at Beijing’s dodgy version of an open multi-cultural society, a heretical worry lingers: The Wings of Songs flutters with flaws, but maybe the producers know more about handling public perception in Southeast Asia better than we smart cinephiles.

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