China Power

WikiLeaks, Hollywood and GDP

Why Chinese movies, just like the country’s GDP figures, are magnificent but meaningless.

The WikiLeaks cables have plenty of material on China, making them something of a must-read for Chinese intellectuals. So I thought it would be worthwhile taking a look at what these cables say about China’s future leaders, especially Vice President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang. After all, they’ll likely be deciding the country’s future from 2012.

Back in 2007, neither of them were in Beijing—Xi was Communist Party Committee Secretary in Zhejiang Province, while Li was Communist Party Committee Secretary in Liaoning Province. But both had a couple of things to say when speaking with the US ambassador at the time that although at a glance might seem minor points, have potentially bigger implications.

According to one cable, then US Ambassador Clark Randt met Xi and Li in 2007. The cable said that Xi mentioned how much he enjoyed Hollywood movies about World War II, but that he added that he felt confused about ‘Curse of the Golden Flower,’ a film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

Li for his part apparently told Randt that China’s GDP numbers are all ‘man-made,’ implying they’re unreliable. He noted that even if economic growth seems high, there’s still a significant income gap, including in Liaoning.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

So why do these remarks matter? To the public, Zhang is particularly known for directing the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he has been highly praised by President Hu Jintao. So it might come as something of a surprise for Chinese to hear Xi questioning one of Zhang’s films and thus running counter to the central government view.

Similarly with the GDP figures, the public will have frequently heard officials boast about economic growth as a symbol of how powerful China is. So reading that Li was so dismissive about the numbers may also raise some eyebrows. Chinese movies it seems, just like the GDP figures, are magnificent but meaningless.

These snippets raise expectations that China’s future leaders might have their own, independent thoughts on the country (although it will be interesting to see if they’ll feel quite so comfortable talking with foreign diplomats once they’re settled into leadership positions).

And if nothing else, as a writer in China, I’ve learned one thing from these latest WikiLeaks—never tell everything to foreign officials, especially Americans, as it has the potential to get us into all sorts of potential trouble later on. Maybe in future I should also try to say no to any more lunch invitations from foreign embassies…