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Chinese movie ‘The Battle of Lake Changjin’ turns the painful history of the Korean War into a glorious victory

A screenshot from the official “Battle of Changjin Lake” trailer on Youtube.

A former investigative reporter Luo Changping was recently arrested for mocking the newly released propaganda movie, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (or Chosin Reservoir), a war drama featuring the People's Volunteer Army (PVA) during the Korean War (1950–53).

The film was released as part of the 100th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China. With a 200 million US dollar production budget, the movie is co-directed by award-winning filmmakers Chen Kaige, Hark Tsui, and Dante Lam and stars top actor Wu Jing.

The film was released on China's National Day, and mainland Chinese box office earnings passed 4 billion Chinese Yuan (600 million US dollars) in less than 10 days. The film tells a story of the Chinese Volunteer Soldiers’ self-sacrificing heroism which helped them dramatically defeat the US army in the battle of Chosin Reservoir.

The battle of Chosin Reservoir

The battle took place between November 27 and December 13, 1950 — one month after former Chinese leader Mao Zedong officially entered the Korean War. The three-year war between the Soviet-backed North and United Nations-backed South Korea was triggered after North Korean military forces crossed the border and entered South Korea on June 25, 1950.

Under the slogan “resist the US in support of Korea” (抗美援朝), Mao ordered the Chinese liberation army to attack the United Nation troops, which was composed mainly of US forces, in North Korea to prevent the unification of Korea under capitalist forces. To avoid declaring war against the UN and US, the Chinese troops were dubbed the “People's Volunteer Army (PVA).

About 3 million Chinese civilian and military personnel served in the Korean War.

During the war, 120,000 Chinese soldiers from the PVA's ninth army were sent to the battlefield in the middle of winter to attack 30,000 United Nations troops in Chosin Reservoir.

The Chinese volunteer army was so poorly equipped that tens of thousands froze to death as the temperature in the Chosin Reservoir reached minus 30 degrees Celsius. According to official Chinese reports, the army recorded 48,156 casualties during the battle, with nearly 29,000 being non-battle-related deaths. As for the UN troops, they lost 17,843 lives, with 7,338 killed by the brutally cold weather. However, the latter managed to retreat and eventually evacuate 98,100 refugees and civilians who wanted to escape the Soviet-backed military regime out of Northeastern Korea, a region surrounded by the Korean People's Army (KPA). 

Controversy and criticism

The choice of the battle as a patriotic propaganda film is controversial, as the Korean War was an incredibly painful period for both China and Korea. It is estimated that North Korea and China each lost between 200,000–400,000 soldiers while the South Korean army lost 162,394 and the American army lost 36,574 lives. The Soviet Union air force lost 335 planes and 299 lives.

China's intervention in the Korean War was largely controversial until recent years as the war caused huge causalities on all sides. More than 3 million Korean civilians died in the war. As pointed out by Adam Ni from Chinese political news analysis site, the battle Chosin Reservoir was considered a “failure at massive cost”:

However, in China today, reflecting on the war can have grave consequences. Former investigative reporter, Luo Changping was arrested for “infringing the reputation and honor of national martyrs” after he wrote the following comment on Chinese social media:

半個世紀之後國人少有反思這場戰爭的正義性,就像當年的沙雕連不會懷疑上峰的『英明決策』。

After half a century, people in this country seldom reflect on the cause of this war. The situation is like the frozen troops back then, they did not question the “acute decision” from the above.

While most negative comments about the movie and critical comments about China's intervention in the Korean War have been suppressed and censored, patriotic messages spread on social media. One netizen @fangshimin placed two video bloggers’ so-called “personal” interpretations of the film together to demonstrate the propaganda authorities’ effort to advocate for a “hot-blooded” (血性) patriotism, which means a willingness to fight for the country:

Here come the propaganda script of “the Battle of Changjing Lake”

It is common to see pro-Chinese government bloggers spreading authorities’ talking points. One notable example was a flood of video clips on Uyghurs’ life in Xinjiang. Investigative journalists pointed out that the so-called experience shared by over a thousand Uyghurs was taken from an identical script, which suggested that the videos were part of a coordinated influence campaign. The netizen @fangshimin believed bloggers were using the same tactic when discussing the patriotic movie — both bloggers said that they had a grandpa who fought in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and that history shows that it is necessary to suppress feminine masculinity and the fandom culture. The Chinese government recently launched a communications campaign to suppress “sissies” and fan culture. Below is the partial translation of the script:

這個仗如果說我們不打,就是我們的下一代要打,電影的這句話一直劇在我的腦子裡面,我們現在的年輕人,只要多一點血性,多了解一點歴史,就不會去參拜靖國神社…我們現在口雖然能吃飽飯了,有肉吃的,但精神上還是竹很匱乏的,想想在戰場上的美軍吃著火雞,過著感恩節,而我們的戰士只能吃著冰凍的土豆填著肚子,這個就是我們1950年時候的年輕人,在那麼寒冷的環境裡面,裝備那麼落後的情況下,還創造了震驚世界的奇跡,只因為要保護我們的家園…我特別支持打擊娘炮和飯圈文化,讓我們重新立起了這份陽剛之氣,因為我們的生活和工作都需要,這不僅僅是軍人的事,而是整個社會的事…

“If we don’t fight this battle, our next generation will have to fight this.” This line in the movie stays in my brain. If our young generation is more “hot-blooded” and has more knowledge about history, they would not visit Yasukuni Shrine [in Japan]… Now, we have meat to fill our stomach, but we have lost our spirit. Just imagine in the battlefield, the American soldiers were having their turkeys to celebrate thanksgiving, our warriors only had frozen potatoes. The young people in the 1950s were like this: in such brutal cold weather, with such backward equipment, they had created a miracle that shocked the whole world. All because they wanted to protect their homeland… Hence, I support the crackdown on sissies and fandom culture. This would help us to rebuild our martial spirit. We need this in our life and work. This [protecting the homeland] is not the soldiers’ duty, but the whole society should take up the duty…

The film has also triggered an editing debate on Chinese Wikipedia. William Long, a prominent tech blogger, noted that some Wikipedia users are continually attempting to edit the original entry of the Chinese term the Battle of Chosin Reservoir (長津湖戰役) to suggest that China gained a “decisive victory” in the battle, while others disagreed given China lost tens of thousands of lives in the battle and failed to eliminate the UN troops.

As there is no space for critical discussion on the movie's content in mainland China, some Chinese netizens turned to the movie production team and criticized them for making a profit by commercializing patriotism. They suggested that the movie production team should donate their profits to the Korean War soldiers and their families.

New York Times reporter, Evan Hill, notes that outside China, the space for critical deliberation on history is also shrinking because Hollywood has been self-censoring their production for the sake of gaining profit in the China market:

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