"Banned in Beijing" may not accrue the cultural cachet that "banned in Boston" did. But if China's reported restriction on showing portions of the Academy Awards brings more attention to a film it finds objectionable, then that's better for those seeking freedom in Hong Kong — and worldwide.
The film, "Do Not Split," is an on-the-ground (if not in-the-trenches) view of Hong Kong's convulsion amid protests against a bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The communist government's smothering didn't stop there, as the formerly free city is now nearly totally controlled by Beijing's repressive regime.
The images in the "Documentary Short" nominee are long-lasting. So are the voices. Not from a narrator, but from chanting crowds as well as intrepid individuals, including Joey Siu, a student activist in the thick of the throngs crying out for democracy (if not crying from tear gas).
The film's message is "to showcase our determination to defend all these universal rights that are supposed to be guaranteed and enjoyed as a human being, and it is really important to convey our determination to battle the Communist Party," Siu said in an interview.
Born in North Carolina but raised in Hong Kong mostly, Siu is now in Washington, D.C., because it became too dangerous to remain, especially after being so out- (and well-) spoken in a film about what she deemed "a battle with a giant, in control as one of the greatest superpowers in the world."
When Chinese diplomats met their counterparts from the other superpower last week in Anchorage, Alaska — a fitting site for a frosty relationship (or Cold War, as some consider it) — they discarded diplomacy for denigration (a move and mood matched by Secretary of State Antony Blinken).
China's top envoy, Yang Jiechi, blew past the two-minute limit for opening statements with a near 17-minute speech-turned-screed, accusing the U.S. in a string of incendiary indictments, all while the cameras rolled.
The delegation seemed to take its cues from a movie that Beijing backs, not bans: "Wolf Warrior," the first in a series of "Rambo"-like flicks depicting an emboldened China. The more assertive approach has even been dubbed "wolf warrior diplomacy."
This "aggressive form of diplomacy is a reflection of rising nationalism inside China," Ryan Hass, a China expert who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an e-mail exchange. "China's 'wolf warrior' diplomats earn public acclaim and notoriety for standing up for China's dignity and honor. Yang Jiechi's performance in Alaska is but the latest example. He was widely lauded inside China for holding firm against American 'attacks.' "
What China considers an attack actually is just overdue truth delivered by Blinken, who in Anchorage expressed "our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies. Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability."
Seeking an allied front against this threat to global stability, Blinken has met extensively with partners, including in Europe this week. And President Joe Biden held a mid-March virtual summit with like-minded leaders in India, Japan and Australia — members of the so-called "quad." Together, these heads of state stated in a joint commentary published in the Washington Post that "we are recommitting to a shared vision for an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, resilient and inclusive." Amplifying the quad's comments, Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin co-wrote a commentary titled "America's partnerships are 'force multipliers' in the world."
Blinken's bluntness reflects a relative rarity in American society and politics: consensus. In fact, reckoning with a rising China has mostly bipartisan support in the Capitol and the country, as evidenced by a new Pew Research Center poll headlined "Most Americans Support Tough Stance Toward China on Human Rights, Economic Issues." Among the many metrics mirroring the chill in Anchorage is this stat: "89% consider China a competitor or enemy, rather than a partner."
And yet, unlike the East-West, capitalism-communism, U.S.-U.S.S.R. binary dynamics during the Cold War, the relationship is interdependent, Hass said during a Brookings Institution event this week.
"What happened in Alaska is a sign of the new normal that we live in; a lot of the tussling that previously has taken place behind closed doors in the past has now just burst into the open," Hass said. But, he added, "the reality is that both sides threw a few punches in front of the press and then they got down to work when the press left the room. And we saw over the course of eight-plus hours of exchange between them that they rolled up their sleeves and dealt with some serious issues that are affecting both the United States and China."
Hass, who examines the complex Sino-American relationship in the just-published book "Stronger: Adapting America's China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence," added that the relationship is "sharply competitive in many areas." And yet, he said, "There is an interdependence between the United States and China. What happens in Iran affects both of us. What happens in Afghanistan impacts both of us. What happens in global markets affects both of us. So, we don't necessarily need to be brought together by amity or goodwill. Our interests are going to intersect; we're going to have to find ways to deal with each other. And those two twin dynamics were very much on display in Alaska."
Biden's top presidential priorities like climate change, Iran and North Korea can't be addressed without China. And yet an even more profound presidential emphasis, promoting democracy, seemed to be his focus Thursday during his first news conference as president. "Look," Biden said, "I predict to you — your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake, not just with China."
As for Siu, her studies, and plans to be a teacher, were interrupted by Hong Kong's crisis. On a societal and personal level she understands the stakes, too.
"We can never take freedom and the human rights that we have been guaranteed for granted," Siu said. "We can see how fragile it is; how quick it takes for a tyranny to destroy and to damage those values we have been long cherishing."
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.