Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Oppenheimer,” will be released in China at the end of this month. This leads to an intriguing question. What might the Oppenheimer movie’s release reveal about how China’s government or people think about the creation of the atomic bomb?
The initial logic behind the intrigue is that for “Oppenheimer” to have been allowed into China, it has to have been actively accepted by a censor, and that is an increasingly high bar for an American film. Last year, only 15 U.S. films were allowed in, according to Deadline, compared to more than 30 in 2019. Thus, for an obviously political biopic about the “creator” of the first atomic bomb to be one of few films to make it onto that short list could raise the possibility that the decision is some kind of endorsement of the film’s political messaging. And if that was the case, it might offer some kind of solid indication of how the Chinese government sees Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The reality, however, isn’t as simple as that. Because of how the censor system tends to work. “I wouldn’t say Chinese censors steer clear of political films as an unimpeachable rule — but they do steer clear of certain politics,” Erich Schwartzel, author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, told Domino Theory via email. “In Hollywood, studio executives know to avoid the ‘three T’s’ — Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. Interpreting how censors will respond to other political themes is an inexact science, often subject to China’s internal politics at any given moment.”
So, anyone hoping to draw definitive conclusions about what this film says about the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward the creation of the first nuclear bombs is likely to be frustrated. Schwartzel, in fact, thinks the film’s entry into China says more about the general state of U.S.-China relations than anything really substantial about nuclear bombs. “I’ve come to think of Chinese approvals for certain films as a weathervane of Beijing’s attitude toward the country distributing them,” he explains. “When relations between the U.S. and China are fraying, fewer American movies are accepted onto Chinese screens. And if China wants to deepen ties with a particular country, films from that country are often approved.”
Regardless of the exact motivations of the censors, though, the way the film will be received is still worth thinking about, because it sits on top of — and presumably will draw out — a pile of major historical tensions in terms of China’s relation to the bomb.
For instance: The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki theoretically helped force the unconditional surrender of Japan in World War II, which had occupied Chinese Manchuria since before that war. However, in China, the Communist Party emphasized the importance of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Manchuria in leading to Japan’s surrender above this, according to the Henrietta Harrison paper “Popular Responses to the Atomic Bomb in China 1945-1955.”
Or: After the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, Chinese propaganda focused on playing down fears about the power of the bomb and the U.S., which had changed from a World War II ally into an ideological and strategic enemy. However, simultaneous efforts to paint the Americans as “atomic madmen” and capitalism as a mad dog worked in the opposite direction, combining with anxiety that had already been generated by fears about a third world war beginning with the Korean War. (Ultimately, in 1950, when the global Stockholm Peace Appeal claimed 450 million signatures from 75 countries in favor of an outright ban on nuclear weapons, 204 million of the signatures, the largest number for any country, were from China.)
And finally, of course: How “Oppenheimer” is received will not only be refracted through those tensions, but also China’s building of its own atomic bomb(s). Presented in 1955 as a sign of scientific progress, with an emphasis on the potential civilian uses of nuclear power, Chinese state media currently emphasizes China’s increasing nuclear capacity as a regrettable component of a global proliferation that is ultimately the U.S.’s fault. Earlier this year, for instance, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) was cited by the China Daily as saying that China is “committed to a defensive nuclear strategy and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required by national security and does not target any country.”
In combination, these conflicting historical forces — and doubtless many more — make available a vast range of potential responses to “Oppenheimer,” even before the content of the film itself and political differences within China are considered. It could elicit anything from a sense of introspection about China’s own complicity in the ongoing proliferation of these weapons, to grand dreams of being a technological superpower (Harrison notes that while in 1945 Chinese texts on the history of splitting the atom culminated in the Manhattan Project, later efforts emphasized the role of scientists from elsewhere working on progressing other nuclear science, including those from China). These views might not be unique to China, but they would surely be shaped, and made more or less likely, by the particular tensions that lie beneath them.
From here, one obvious thought is that the film, like a long list of other things at the moment, could be harnessed for and reduced to Cold War-style finger pointing. Nozomi Saito, a postdoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor of English at Amherst College, who has focused on Cold War security in Asia and the Pacific, has pointed out there could be a reading of the film as a form of (ill-judged) catharsis for U.S. viewers, with protagonist Robert Oppenheimer’s fictional repentance served up in place of any systemic shift. But there is also an equally reductive way of seeing the film available for anyone looking to point in the other direction.
“For the Chinese side, it may be that anything that reminds Chinese audiences of U.S. imperial violence serves an ideological aim,” Saito says via email. “In other words, the subtext of [U.S.] guilt isn’t the point; it’s the spectacular historical violence.”
If it were to be read like this, the film might have potential to slot into the existing routine of escalatory rhetorical exchanges between China and the U.S. “Both sides benefit from amplifying the fear and tensions between two major military and economic powers because these fears allow them to justify increasing militarization in the name of defense and security rather than aggression or preparing for outright war,” Saito adds as part of a broader point about the damage “binaristic” perspectives on U.S.-China relations can do.
However, to be fair to the film, it doesn’t exactly demand to be harnessed like this. While there have been criticisms of the manner in which it preserves sympathy for Oppenheimer himself, there are not many obvious ways to read it as a glowing endorsement of the U.S. military or political establishment: It devotes much of its runtime to a relatively critical view of McCarthyism, and the single scene with U.S. President Harry Truman presents him as ruthless, for instance. Whether you believe it is the correct approach to the topic or otherwise, one would have to work hard to suggest it is much more than ambivalent in any direction about the U.S. building and detonation of the nuclear bomb.
Schwartzel elaborates on this point. “[I] think it avoids many of the World War II topics that have raised concerns among Chinese censors in the past,” he says. “It is almost entirely about operations based in the U.S., and decisions made by its physicists and politicians largely concern American interests. But I think its moral ambiguity makes it less likely to be read as an anti-American film than other options the censors would have if they wanted to present that messaging to Chinese audiences.”
Looking at the evidence so far, there are already some hints that this prediction is correct. A (non-scientific) search through Chinese social media site Weibo (微博) at the time of writing found that, alongside a majority of accounts generally excited about the film’s arrival and praising its director’s other work, the recurring political theme was a focus on Japan, rather than the U.S. Responding to complaints within Japan about some inappropriate marketing of “Oppenheimer” alongside the Barbie movie (a combination dubbed “Barbenheimer”), one popular account, for instance, suggested that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was successfully emphasizing Japan’s role as victim in the attacks, while downplaying its own imperialism. “My attitude is that if Japan did not reflect deeply on all the countries it invaded and the people it slaughtered, including China, before and after the Second World War, then Japan has no right to ask anyone to sympathize with Hiroshima and Nagashima” (我的態度是，如果日本沒有對第二次世界大戰前後對包括中國在內的所有被他侵略的國家和被他屠戮戕害的人民進行深刻反思，那麼日本就沒有資格要求任何人同情廣島和長崎的核爆死難者), they wrote.
Of course, as that search alludes to, a good many people in China — as elsewhere — will primarily experience this film aesthetically rather than politically. It’s a blockbuster. And there are those who believe its ambivalence is actually emptiness. But neither of those points necessarily means the film doesn’t have political value, even to those who don’t primarily see it through that lens. Most optimistically, in a world where you can find stories about binary choices between China or the U.S. every day, having a piece of popular culture that touches the history of both competing superpowers so profoundly, while highlighting rather than resolving contradictions and tensions in those histories, could be healthy. The world can certainly handle more focus on stories that resist slotting into either side’s simplest stories about themselves.
Image: U.S. Department of Energy, Public Domain