Dir. John Pilger (Edited with Joe Frost)
The Coming War on China is in selected cinemas now and will be broadcast on ITV 1 at 10.35pm TONIGHT (Tuesday 6th December).
Early on in The Coming War on China, the camera hovers over Bikini Atoll, where the Pacific island was obliterated by the American H-bomb tests in the late 1950s. The once tropical paradise with aquamarine shallows now has a dark, cavernous abyss in its centre- a haunting sign of the destruction the nuclear age heralded in upon the Earth. It is also an apt metaphor for the central argument of John Pilger’s 60th documentary film: that the United State’s ‘pivot to Asia’ is bringing the world to the precipice of a nuclear war with the world’s second largest economy. True to his former award-winning journalism, Pilger’s urgent film exposes the hidden history of US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific and its geopolitical relationship with China. More importantly, his film reveals those already on the frontline of this burgeoning confrontation and insists on our solidarity with those that independent journalist Amy Goodman has called ‘the silenced majority’.
Despite its title, Pilger does not directly prophesy how this war will specifically develop though he points to the recent expansion of the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific as setting the ground for a potential global conflict, drawing partly on the recent studies of David Vine and James Bradley on US base expansion and Sino-American history respectively. The deployment of significant US military resources affect China’s trade routes in the South China Sea and isolate it from other nations within the region. As with all his documentaries (though especially in Stealing a Nation, Nicaragua: A Nation’s Right to Survive and Palestine is Still the Issue) Pilger zooms in from the wider context to those affected by these global forces on the ground. Going to this region of political fault-lines, Pilger speaks with the islanders of Bikini, Jeju and Okinawa to explore the historical and contemporary atrocities committed by US governments from Truman to Obama. A profound sense of humility and shame descends when listening to these survivors and activists, as reflexively assuming that the US government would guarantee the safe evacuation and welfare of the islanders betrays a baseless assumption of their morality. Juxtaposing these strong, clear testimonies with the unconvincing rhetoric and bluster of US officials, Pilger instead proves the racist brutality and indifference of US foreign policy to those living in the Asia-Pacific. However, as with the Aborigines in The Secret Country and his last feature-length documentary Utopia, Pilger avoids liberal condescension of the island’s indigenous people. Not merely portrayed as victims, Pilger brings into view the active resistance that is taking place today through a diverse mix of religious, civilian and indigenous rights groups that already recognise the danger signs. It is us, perhaps comfortable and complacent, that need to wake up to this precarious reality.
Alongside this secret history, the Western lens that not only views the US as manifestly benign in global affairs but also distorts the perception of contemporary Chinese society is under scrutiny here. Not only saturated with the images of submissive Orientalist stereotypes, Mao Zedong and the 1949 Communist Revolution, Pilger also infers it is America’s subconscious aversion to having ‘a mirror raised to itself’ due to the success of China’s economic reforms that partly underlies why American policy-makers and media have become antagonistic toward the emerging power. He also indicates that the historically racist ‘yellow-fever’ could be re-emerging in a 21st Century form. It should be made clear that China does not escape due criticism for its human rights issues and social inequality. When one Chinese academic insists that the nation has become a ‘class-less society’, he contradicts this assertion by documenting the under-trodden migrant class that has expanded under capitalist industrialisation and neoliberal restructuring. It should be noted however, that while a significant proportion of space is devoted to China’s human rights abuses in the Western mainstream media, it is difficult to see a scintilla of the same coverage that describes what the US did in the Marshall Islands as a human rights violation.
Pilger’s narration is often sombre and serious, but it is also filled with characteristic sarcasm and both he and editor Joe Frost set illusion and reality next to each other, exposing shocking truths hidden in plain sight. As such, the experimentation of the Bikini islanders is set against a fashion industry that made a fortune from its name; President Obama’s commitments to ‘a nuclear-free world‘ are contrasted with his increase in nuclear armament funding; that the birthplace of Communist revolution in Beijing is now a super-mall of multinational corporate brands like Apple and Dolce & Gabbana. This raises a wry laugh but it also forces us to consider the consequences of our schizophrenic, Orwellian world that we might not otherwise be willing to acknowledge. It is only our solidarity with the silenced majority, to raise their and our voices that Pilger proposes might prevent the environmental degradation already affecting parts the Japanese and Korean peninsula and, ultimately, prevent another global war. Recently editing the film to include the election win of Donald Trump, who is already poised to provoke China (though he didn’t ignore the dangerous possibilities within a Hillary Clinton presidency), this potential declivity is not imaginary or sensationalist as might be assumed.
As the situation deteriorates in Syria (another area of precarious fault-lines), where regional and global powers are playing a dangerous game, Pilger sharply reminds us not to ignore this escalation on the other side of the world. Despite America’s commitment to a permanent military presence in the region, the Western mainstream media remains collectively silent on and for those already involved as both victims and resistors, despite how much could be at stake for them and us. As a corrective, The Coming War on China is brave, essential journalism that is needed for the worrying times ahead.