A prominent documentary series, The Rise of Great Nations, is being broadcast during prime time on state-run China Central Television (CCTV). The series is fueling a fresh round of discussion and debate on the already hot topic of China’s own rise. In recent years, China’s torrid pace of economic advancement and military buildup has certainly drawn its share of attention and concern from Western countries. Such a high profile film aired by the state’s flagship TV station is certain to receive scrutiny. So indeed, what kind of message is Beijing trying to send?
The Rise of Great Nations is a 12-part documentary series that analyzes the rise and fall of nine Western powers during the last 500 years. Rumor has it that the idea for the film was born during a collective study session of the Central Politburo in 2003, when elite scholars briefed top Chinese communist leaders on their research into the development of major powers since the 15th century. According to the government-owned Xinhuanet website, the original idea came from Chinese President Hu Jintao, who wanted to guide China’s development using lessons learned from the past.
At first glance, the film has a mostly scholarly slant, with refreshingly few communist buzzwords that infest most productions from the Propaganda Department. However, it is telling that the film was mostly focused on the subject countries’ scientific progress, military strength, diplomatic relations, and government activities, whereas very little was said about the importance of human rights, democracy, rule of law, and religious freedom as factors in the countries’ rise. The viewer is likely to get the impression that a nation’s rise is primarily due to a powerful economy and military.
Such a sentiment is consistent with the Chinese regime’s mantras that backwardness will inevitably be exploited and attacked and China’s prosperity requires a strong army as a guarantee. During former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s reign, Deng established the internal diplomatic policy of hiding our intentions, buying time, and striking when ready to avoid potential confrontation. However, Hu does not have the same level of authority in the leadership as Deng and needs to establish his own legacy. Since coming to power, Hu has adopted the policy of playing a prominent role at times in international affairs. On one hand, Hu wants to bolster his image as the leader of a great nation. On the other hand, he continues to sell the peaceful rise theory to mitigate international criticism and concern. In that regard, the film may have elements of both approaches.
Domestically, the film could serve as a call for nationalism and a temporary salve for the severe social problems associated with China’s rapid, but at times reckless, economic development. As the nation is facing unprecedented official corruption, an ever-widening gap of wealth distribution, and alarming amounts of social unrest, the current regime is left with few choices.