memri
October 14, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 235

Chinese And Turkish Wolves On A Propaganda Prowl

October 14, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez
Turkey, China | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 235

One can learn a lot by studying popular culture. For years, China watchers such as Anne-Marie Brady and media experts like Martha Bayles have tracked the growth of Chinese propaganda communicated through popular media.[1] Both have commented on the runaway success of the Chinese action film "Wolf Warrior 2" (2017), a jingoistic movie featuring Chinese heroes and American villains which seems to epitomize cinematic "thought work" in the Xi Jingping era.[2] The Wu Jing hit (one of the biggest hits ever in China) expressly appealed not only to a resurgent Chinese nationalism but to anti-West, anti-U.S. racialism.[3] Brady makes the important point that what we are seeing in the Xi Jingping era in China is mostly a continuation of the policies of past leaders, but with more resources and more political power concentrated in the hands of one man.

It is not surprising that aggressive PRC propagandizing today, whether political or cultural, is being accompanied by an aggressive internal campaign of ideological policing, including savage religious persecution.[4] But it doesn't stop there. While movies glorify the motherland, the regime also glorifies the Chinese president himself.[5] Even places of worship are forced to participate in this blasphemous cult of personality, with religious images removed to make way for political sayings and images of Xi, who has held absolute power since 2012.[6]

While China is an ancient country with its own history and political dynamics, the Wolf Warrior/Xi Jingping dynamic recalls earlier developments halfway around the world. Unlike Communist China, Turkey today is – just barely – a democracy, although political, social and religious space has been steadily squeezed under the authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan has ruled now for almost 20 years, first as prime minister (2003-2014) and since 2014 as president.

If the rise of Xi Jingping and the Wolf Warrior mentality overlap, in Turkey, the rule of Erdogan overlaps with that of the "Valley of the Wolves" media franchise. First beginning as a widely popular television action series in 2003, "Valley of the Wolves" (Kurtlar Vadisi) evolved into several popular films and spinoff series spanning, like Erdogan's rule, almost 20 years.

As aggressively nationalistic as the Chinese films, the Turkish films add overtly antisemitic, anti-Christian, and anti-U.S. content into the mix. The first film spinoff, "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq" (2006) relied heavily on an incident between Turkish and American troops in Iraq and on scandals like Abu Ghuraib but seasoned with additional content such as a Jewish doctor (played by American actor Gary Busey) trafficking in human body parts.[7] To date, three more thrillers based on the popular series have been produced: "Valley of the Wolves: Gladio" (2009), "Valley of the Wolves: Palestine" (2011), and "Valley of the Wolves: Homeland" (2017). Not surprisingly, given how closely the films and series echo regime rhetoric, both the producers and screenwriters of the franchise are admirers of Erdoğan and have dined and exchanged views with the Turkish strongman.[8] This content has also been translated and aggressively marketed to Arabic-speaking audiences in the Middle East, promoting antisemitic, anti-Christian, and anti-U.S. conspiracy theories to a receptive audience.[9]

In an eerie simulacrum of the Wolf Warrior/Xi Jingping dynamic, the fictional world of "Valley of the Wolves" runs parallel to a real-world political exaltation of Erdoğan, tying him to a long line of Turkish conquerors going back 1,000 years.[10] The "Wolf Warrior" films are not about Xi and yet propagate his worldview. The media universe of "Valley of the Wolves" is not about Erdoğan and yet they are very much in sync with the turbo-charged nationalism that he promotes. Both are examples of cinematic art in lockstep with the authoritarian state presenting these states as they wish to be: strong, fierce, and unapologetic.

Some might well say, so what? After all, a Western world that gave the globe James Bond, Rambo, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had tremendous influence with foreign audiences for decades. Western popular culture has been and remains seductive and often highly subversive. I believe that there are important cultural differences between American cultural imperialism and the cultural-political symbiosis we see emerging in Turkey and China.

Obviously, the content of American cultural exports in movies and music – even if the Pentagon may help in the production of some films – largely does not glorify the American state nor is politically in sync with government. Liberal Hollywood would never glorify President Trump. Western authority figures are often demonized or depicted negatively in Western films. The first Rambo movie was, among other things, a critique of the war in Vietnam, and one of the movies most sampled in ISIS propaganda was Ridley Scott's 2005 anti-Crusader epic "Kingdom of Heaven." A rare "patriotic" film, like 2014's "American Sniper," is routinely subjected to withering criticism in the West, with claims that it is "militaristic" and "racist" quite common.[11] Superhero movies may top the box office charts, but one thing liberal Western media, including the entertainment industry, does prolifically is to hold a critical, sometimes harsh, mirror up to Western society, politics, and culture.

Such a critical gaze is not impossible in authoritarian states, but it is far less common and often fraught with political obstacles. While Western self-criticism is common, criticism of China in Hollywood is muted, as studios fear losing access to lucrative foreign markets.[12]

If we see China following the same timeline as Turkey, we should be concerned. The media-amplified xenophobia and jingoism in Turkey came first, to be followed years later by real world aggression and intervention from Libya to the Caucasus. Unfortunately, some Western apologists of the Erdoğan regime have downplayed the steady drumbeat of toxic Turkish propaganda in a forlorn effort to find some common ground between an increasingly hostile Turkey and the West.

In my experience, Western policymakers often downplay the tangible consequences of hostile propaganda until the problem blows up in their face. The West should be very careful about dismissing Chinese ultra-nationalist media content as mere Hollywood-style "bang-bang."[13] What can seem like fantasy wish fulfillment by filmmakers in Turkey and China can also be a crude but roughly accurate depiction of the very real intentions of overbearing authoritarians.[14]

These authoritarians not only have a plan much more nuanced and calculated than what is on the screen, but also the ambition and resources to try to achieve such a vision.[15]

 

[1] Youtube.com/watch?v=pf2pvH9Qxpo, July 2, 2015.

[2] Hudson.org/research/14881-sharp-power-and-stock-villains, March 15, 2019.

[3] Youtube.com/watch?v=cXr1RXJTF0E, March 2, 2019.

[4] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 232, China's Religious Persecution And Its Accomplices, October 5, 2020.

[5] Nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/china-and-cult-xi-25581, July 12, 2018.

[6] Bitterwinter.org/xi-jinping-portraits-replace-catholic-symbols, November 25, 2019.

[7] Spiegel.de/consent-a-?targetUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.spiegel.de%2Finternational%2Fcontroversy-over-turkish-movie-beyond-the-valley-of-the-wolves-a-401565.html&ref=https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2F, February 22, 2006.

[8] Nordicmonitor.com/2019/01/erdogan-fans-hatred-and-xenophobia-via-popular-tv-series, January 31, 2019.

[9] Youtube.com/watch?v=ER60wqKSeZk, May 6, 2020.

[10] Youtube.com/watch?v=WKPagHTN_VU, February 22, 2017.

[11] Jacobinmag.com/2015/01/american-sniper-review, undated.

[12] Latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2020-07-27/hollywoods-self-censorship-for-china-takes-the-spotlight-but-why-now, July 27, 2020.

[13] Theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/08/flag-waving-chinese-blockbuster-wolf-warriors-2-smashes-cinema-records, August 8, 2017.

[14] Warontherocks.com/2020/09/blue-homeland-and-the-irredentist-future-of-turkish-foreign-policy, September 30, 2020.

[15] Chinafile.com/document-9-chinafile-translation, November 8, 2013.

Share this Report:

HELP BRIDGE THE LANGUAGE GAP – DONATE TO MEMRI’S 2020 SUMMER CAMPAIGN