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China: Unleashing the Dragon

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NEW YORK, NY 10014
1995. 200 MINUTES (4 X 50 MIN.)

Viewers familiar with the successful four-part, made-for-TV video series Japan (WTTW/ Chicago, 1987), hosted and narrated by actress Jane Seymour, will recognize the same general style and format embraced in China: Unleashing the Dragon. Like Japan, China also uses a familiar actress appearing on location (sometimes even wearing an identical trenchcoat) to introduce each segment of the video as well as to provide narration and continuity between the various topics and comments from interviewees. But while sophisticated video coverage and analysis of Japanese society has been available for many years via engaging series like Japan and The Faces of Japan (WNET/New York, 1987), few equivalents have existed on the China side, especially in the fallow years since the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, when general interest in China seemed to wane. This painstakingly produced, carefully edited video series, China: Unleashing the Dragon, therefore, should be widely welcomed by educators and students concerned with the amazing changes going on in contemporary China, especially since this series is among the first to really probe the impact of the economic reforms going on since the late leader Deng Xiaoping made the call to accelerate China’s push to become a socialist market economy in 1992.

While no single video, even a nearly four-hour one, can do justice to all the many dramatic changes that have occurred in the short space of the two years from 1992–94 during which most of this video was filmed, nonetheless, China: Unleashing the Dragon goes far to enhance our understanding of the depth and far-reaching implications of the vast reforms now sweeping China. Employing a remarkable ability to match the narrative text with stunning visual images, unusual in all but the best documentary films, this video’s strength lies even more in its phenomenal ability to capture the paradoxes and ironies of a society in the midst of a highspeed transition, with all the excitement and chaotic behavior accompanying the current experiments with economic reform. As the video itself remarks, the end result of all this change can only be guessed, but the basic forces shaping the transition are well documented and presented in this series.

China: Unleashing the Dragon is divided into four fifty-minute episodes based on broad themes, with most episodes further subdivided to explore interesting tangents. In addition, fascinating interviews with expert observers, top officials, and ordinary Chinese from many walks of life punctuate the videos and provide a wide range of perspectives, giving the videos a valuable multidimensionality all too rare in shorter videos or more hastily constructed series.

a man smiles while smoking a cigarette
In the 1960s, Deng Xiaoping, a rising star in the communist leadership, began to question where China was heading. Photo courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films

The first episode, “Deng’s Legacy,” brings the audience quickly up-to-date on Deng’s role in transforming China since the late Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. To illustrate their points and to highlight the stark contrasts now apparent in China’s sometimes chaotic, uneven development, the apparently Hong Kong-based AngloChinese creators of this video series have judiciously and brilliantly selected a cross-section of projects now underway in different parts of the country. Among the more fascinating new experiments investigated are: an enormous urban development project (“Suzhou East”) undertaken by the city of Suzhou with financial and administrative aid from the government of Singapore “on the Singapore model”; the more “wild,” “lawless,” “highly speculative,” “greedy” atmosphere prevailing in the unconstrained, rapid (i.e., 20 percent per year) growth on Hainan Island (shown are businesses and tourism in Haikou and in Sanya, which is building a “Riviera” resort with a Nice-style airport); and updates on older, better-known projects and joint ventures in the southern Special Economic Zones like Zhuhai, Shenzhen, and Shekou. Along the way, one meets the mayors of Suzhou and Zhuhai, Singaporean officials, a variety of Chinese entrepreneurs and new millionaires, as well as ordinary workers still unable to benefit from the economic bonanza going on around them.

The second episode, “The Fragile Rice Bowl,” investigates the individual quest for success, often viewed, especially by younger people, in purely monetary or “modern” lifestyle terms as the freedom to earn and spend as one wishes, although this trend toward rampant consumerism is sometimes criticized within and without as an excessive and apolitical tendency devoid of spiritual value. To illustrate these themes, this episode centers on the twin slogans “breaking the iron rice bowl,” i.e., abandoning a secure but low-paying government job, and “jumping into the sea,” i.e., entering the risky but potentially rewarding private sector. These trends are artfully and sensitively explored through the recent life changes of a young Shanghai schoolteacher-turned-sales manager for a prestigious, rapidly growing cosmetics firm, and how the current economic opportunities are deeply affecting not only herself, but her friends and the members of her immediate and extended family, both in the countryside and in the city. There is much sociological food for thought in this episode, as we see the human dimensions of the resurgence of social hierarchies, generation gaps, and other disparities between those working in the public and private sectors, rich and poor, old and young.

The third episode, “The Soul of the Master,” further develops the latter themes in the context of the question of what is happening to Chinese culture in the aftermath of both thirty years of Maoism, and the subsequent resurgence of market forces. This dilemma is dramatically accentuated in the declining popularity of traditional opera, which the state balks to support because it doesn’t pay, to the rising popularity of youthful rock concerts, which the authorities look upon with alarm. We not only meet singers and performers, but hear also the laments of a cultural academician who foresees a China in which not only book-reading is replaced by video games, but where most of the traditional culture has completely disappeared. What kind of people will the Chinese be then? he asks. This episode also explores the sad, uprooted lives of the underclass of floating workers from the countryside seeking jobs in the city. This less-noticed trend is exacting a heavy toll on older patterns of traditional village life. One of the more poignant moments is the comment of a tearful village mother seeing her sons go off again in vain to the city in search of employment. “No one stays on the farms anymore,” she sobs, and “it’s the same everywhere.” This is another aspect of traditional China’s bedrock which is being sundered as traditional bonds of family and village seem to be coming apart among the masses of rural residents. This episode leaves us wondering what price China is paying for its economic boom.

The final episode, “Hong Kong and the Boom Towns,” is in no way the least informative or insightful of the series, despite being perhaps the better-known topic to the outside world. Rather, this intriguing insider’s perspective on Hong Kong is a particularly revealing look at what makes this city tick, even for those who might already know the city well or might have visited it many times. Although Hong Kong has now changed political hands, the film’s penetrating interviews with a variety of Hong Kongers from all levels of society, young and old, rich and poor, from club members to lawyers and filmmakers, gives one an excellent feel for the economic, cultural, and political issues that are on everyone’s mind during this anxious period of transition. Whether the city will be able to maintain the advantages of the pluralistic society, basic freedoms, rule of law, and relative absence of corruption it has become accustomed to under British rule while keeping up its world-renowned, dynamic entrepreneurial spirit under the city’s new “one country, two systems” status, are the issues explored in depth in this episode.

Although filmed mostly in 1994, this thoughtfully constructed video series loses little of its visual or narrative impact from the two biggest changes that have taken place since its production: the death of Deng, and the reversion of Hong Kong to mainland control. Since both of these events were in fact anticipated when the film was made, the narrative is able to raise pertinent questions about the future of China and Hong Kong in light of these then-foreseen changes. It is therefore safe to say that for the time being, this high-quality, fast-paced, and thought-provoking video series, which maintains high production values throughout, is a must-see experience for anyone interested in the impressive and multidimensional economic changes going on now in China.

The series is recommended for advanced secondary, college, and adult audiences, but it is to be noted that before seeing these videos, viewers of this series will benefit considerably from some previous exposure to modern China’s history, and especially some familiarity at least with major events since 1949. The videos would therefore best fit as a series into an advanced secondary or, preferably, into a college course or adult discussion series concentrating on China or East Asia, although the series or individual episodes might fruitfully serve in a variety of courses in a number of specific social science disciplines as well.

The recent books, China Wakes, by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Times Books, 1994), and Mandate of Heaven, by Orville Schell (Simon & Schuster, 1994), would make ideal complementary reading to accompany this series, since many of the changes and themes examined in these two insightful volumes are beautifully exemplified in the videos. Nicolas Kristof in fact appears in three of the four episodes as one of the foreign experts interviewed (although, unfortunately, his name is misspelled—with two f’s—in the subtitles).

The only general drawback worth pointing out in a work otherwise so admirably put together is a tendency toward oversimplification and even exaggeration on some historical points, though this can perhaps be forgiven in a work striving to cover so much ground. Among the few factual errors detected is that Tianjin (mentioned in the third episode) is not a province, but a municipality.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Wednesday, June 19, in observance of Juneteenth.