Americans know Jackie Chan best for his cheery, acrobatic performances in action movies such as “Rumble in the Bronx” and “Rush Hour,” made successful by his amazing martial artistry and self-effacing comedy. Chinese know Chan, a Hong Kong native, for largely the same reasons. But they also know him for something most Americans might find surprising: He is passionately political, a staunch defender of the Chinese Communist Party and harsh critic of anyone he sees as opposing Beijing. Today, that includes the United States.
Chan, responding to widespread criticism of China’s recent censorship of a popular newspaper, insisted in a Chinese TV interview that the United States is “the most corrupt country in the world.”
This interview is probably not so surprising to Chinese viewers. Chan has been stirring controversy for a few years now for criticizing Taiwan and Hong Kong as models of what can go wrong when you have “too much freedom.” He once said, in defending China’s censorship of his films, “Chinese people need to be controlled, otherwise they will do whatever they want.” So, in some ways, it was probably only a matter of time until he set his sights on the United States. Given that he called Taiwanese democracy “the biggest joke in the world,” it’s surprising his criticism of the U.S., which is commonly viewed as either Taipei’s sponsor or its puppet-master, wasn’t harsher.
Chan’s comments, though widely disparaged on Chinese social media, do reflect a certain strain of anti-Americanism that is particular to some elements of China. Like his criticism of Taiwanese and Hong Kong democracy, it’s as much about defending China. And that defensiveness is often more about internal Chinese doubts about their country’s progress, which has come so far but still has a ways to go. The flip side of Chinese nationalism, which has risen along with China itself, is often a sense of national insecurity.
This aspect of Chinese nationalism has seemed to peak at moments when China comes under more international criticism, as Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao wrote in a great piece about the anti-Japanese protests from this past summer. In many ways, Gao argued, such outbursts are less about lashing out against critics than a manifestation of ”the Chinese public’s struggle to reconcile the frustrating social realities surrounding them with the lofty patriotic ideals they have long internalized.”
Still, you might naturally be wondering how Chan can square his criticism of the United States with his long embrace of the American film market. How, after all, could he spend so much time making movies in “the most corrupt country in the world”? It’s the sort of contradiction that can make Chinese views of the U.S. baffling. I’m reminded of a 2011 Chinese TV documentary about the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which a young student beamed that he had been “very happy” about the attacks. He added of Osama bin Laden, “Anyone who quarrels with the Americans is a hero.” When the interviewer asked the Beijinger how he felt about the United States, he said, hardly missing a beat, “I love it. I’m studying in the U.S. soon. If I don’t have to come back, then I won’t come back.”
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Jackie Chan holds such opinions, or that this is even a particularly common view in China. The young Beijinger’s comments were roundly mocked on Chinese social media precisely because they were so baldly hypocritical. Still, they were an extreme form of a much milder but similarly contradictory Chinese perception of America, one that maybe has echoes in Chan’s condemnation of the country that has helped make him so rich.
Look at it this way: Christian Bale, who famously got himself attacked by Chinese state security officials who kept him from visiting house-arrested dissident Chen Guangcheng, also starred in a popular Chinese film, “The Flowers of War,” about the country’s trauma during the 1937 Nanjing massacre. It probably intuitively makes sense to Americans that a Western movie star would both draw attention to China’s faults while also starring in a Chinese movie that so stoked Chinese nationalism that it was accused of being “propaganda.” (I haven’t seen the movie so can’t comment on that charge.)
The apparent contradiction in Bale’s behavior is consistent with a certain view of China that, right or wrong, is popular in the West: of a great country held back by a repressive government. To the degree that Chan’s comments were anti-American, they likewise reflect a common Chinese view of the United States, one that is rooted not just in attitudes toward America but in China’s proud but sometimes insecure view of itself. In other words, we shouldn’t be too offended.