If you want an honorary degree in U.S.-China relations, all you need to do is watch Spider-Man

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Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, pursue cross-cultural understanding through journalism — this time the secret behind why censors blocked Spider-Man from movie theaters in China.

“Something is really worrying me, Buck.”

“What’s that, Lei?”

“U.S.-China relations.”

“Aw, Lei, don’t worry.”

“Buck, I’m serious. I don’t think I’ve seen anything worse.”

“Lei, you mean worse than China’s relations with Great Britain.”

“Huh?”

“I mean after the First Opium War in 1839 — or maybe after the Second Opium War in 1856?”

“Ha! Yeah, Britain was not great to us, for sure.”

“I’ll say.”

“But neither was France and the rest of you bullies in the West.”

“Bullies, eh?”

“Yes, Buck, they forced us to legalize the opium trade, allow Christian missionaries to roam freely and open up our ports through ‘unequal treaties’ — money grabs, really — to gain access to Chinese products and markets.”

“Oh.”

“They cut us up like a mincemeat pie. Did I mention pillaging, Buck?”

“Nope.”

“After ransacking the old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 — and setting it ablaze — British and French soldiers completed their act of revenge by making off with centuries of treasure. Many of the spoils are still in the British Museum for shameless display.”

“Easy now, Lei. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from studying China.”

“What’s that?”

“Historical perspective.”

“Oh?”

“After those Opium Wars, and the loss to Japan in 1895 in the First Sino-Japanese War, China became known as the ‘Sick Man of Asia.’”

“No, Buck, not a ‘first’ war. We prefer the term ‘Japanese invasion.’ And don’t remind me of our last emperor and the corrupt and incompetent Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). That’s when we lost our dominance over East Asia to Japan — not to mention Taiwan.”

“But, Lei, today China has made so many gains that it makes other countries sick — especially the U.S.”

“Sorry about that, Buck, but we Chinese people are very proud of our nation’s accomplishments.”

“Feeling better?”

“Not really, Buck. I guess I need more historical perspective.”

“Well, there’s the story from 1972 when our president, Richard Nixon, with Henry Kissinger at his side, was so thrilled to finally meet Mao Zedong and his wingman, Zhou Enlai. Remember that?”

“Yes, of course. That was the great opening of U.S.-China relations. It was your successful Cold War play against the Soviet Union.”

“Right. And do you remember what happened when small talk turned to the French Revolution?”

“No.”

“Well, as the story goes, when he was asked about the revolution’s implications, Zhou said it was ‘too early to say.’”

“LOL. Nixon’s interpreter thinks Zhou was responding to the 1968 uprisings in France, but I get the point — China takes the long view.”

“Lei, as Mark Twain said, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ So you feel better, right?”

“No, Buck. I really don’t understand what’s going on now between our two countries. It’s a little scary.”

“What has you worried?”

“I feel the pain of your Asian people there — literally. The reports about rising hate crimes and violence are chilling.”

“I know, it’s so sad.”

“And, if you believe public opinion polls, Americans’ distrust of Asians is bad and getting worse.”

“Really?”

“Have you ever heard of the STAATUS Index?”

“No, Lei, what’s that?”

“Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S. It’s new. The first assessment of attitudes and stereotypes of Asian Americans came out in 2021 from a poll of adults across the U.S. It just released its second annual poll.”

“What did it say?”

“More people blame Asian Americans for the pandemic and believe they are less loyal to the U.S. than to their ancestors’ homelands.”

“And that poll came out when?”

“Just the other day, in May, during your Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.”

“Ouch. What’s the view of Americans from your perch in China?”

“Just as bad.”

“I see.”

“I’m getting anxious, Buck.”

“OK, my friend, kick back. I can explain all you need to know about U.S.-China relations in the easiest possible terms for you.”

“How’s that?”

“Through your favorite Spider-Man movies.”

“OMG, go!”

“OK, so Peter Parker was a nerdy youngster who got bullied all the time, like China in the 19th century.”

“Gotcha, Buck. That sounds like the original ‘Spider-Man’ film in 2002—the start of the first triology.”

“So you see the Peter/China connection?”

“Sure, Buck. Peter goes through an identity crisis. In this sense, he’s like China, figuring out his place in the world.”

“With an insecurity streak, eh?”

“Right, Buck. The Opium Wars marked the beginning of our ‘one hundred years of humiliation’ (1840-1949). The biggest lesson profoundly imprinted in the Chinese nation’s collective memory was ‘those who fall behind will be beaten up.’ Go on, please.”

“So the girl next door, Mary Jane, seems unattainable to Peter/China, like becoming a global economic power. Foremost in his way is the U.S., which looks to him like Dr. Otto Octavius, you know, the supervillain with mechanical hands.”

“I’m right there with you, Buck: ‘Spider-Man 2’ in 2004. Peter, like China, is an underdog who is just embarking on his journey to greatness. He’s the nerdy, shy guy who hides and bides.”

“Hides and bides?”

“Yes, Buck, that was China’s approach to the world, per Deng Xiaoping’s maxim.

Deng took over after Mao died in 1976. As the ‘Architect of Modern China,’ under his leadership from 1978 to 1989, Deng thought China should hide its strength and bide its time.”

“I see.”

“Sorry, please go on.”

“OK, so things get worse for Peter/China when he’s confronted with a triology of problems — high poverty rates and low literacy rates in the countryside and an infrastructure that made Shanghai’s airport look like a Greyhound bus terminal.”

“Buck, I’m seeing New Goblin, Sandman and Venom like it was yesterday, only we’re talking about ‘Spider-Man 3’ in 2007. Then what happens?”

“The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, Lei.”

“Ah yes, China’s coming out party! That combined with the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 gave China a confidence boost that turned it from Spider-Man to ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012).”

“No more hide and bide for you, Lei Jiao.”

“Yes, Buck, you can now call me a Wolf Warrior.”

“And something else happened in 2008, Lei.”

“What’s that, Buck?”

“The Global Financial Crisis following the Wall Street stock market crash.”

“Indeed, Buck. That fed China’s narrative: ‘The East is rising while the West is declining.’ Not to rub it in, but I just saw a Wall Street Journal article about how inflation is raging across the world — except in China.”

“Oh, Lei, please stop it with that socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics thing. You are weaving a web of discontent in me. I’m just trying to help you here.”

“Sorry, I digress. Maybe an ancient Chinese expression can cheer you up?”

“OK.”

“This one goes to the heart of China’s foreign policy built on sovereignty, security and self-interest.”

“And the expression is …?”

“Each one sweeps the snow from his own doorsteps and does not bother about the frost on his neighbor’s roof.”

“That’s chill, Lei. But I can’t help but think of China’s embrace of Russia at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, like Peter Parker befriending Harry Osborn, eh?”

“Holy Green Goblin, Buck! How that becomes a happy ending is a real cliffhanger.”

“OK, Lei, let’s jump ahead. Do you remember seeing the last Marvel Studios epic, ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (2021), in movie theaters there in China?”

“No way.”

“Funny, Lei.”

“Buck, don’t you remember what we said in our film review about how Spider-Man won the end-of-the-year world box office?”

“Remind me.”

“It was a great victory for Disney-owned Marvel Studios and Sony-owned Columbia Pictures. Sony handled distribution of the film, remember?”

“Tell me more.”

“That box office battle was with China’s explosively patriotic epic, ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ so we Chinese citizens could enjoy watching our heroic soldiers defeat yours on the Korean War battlefield.”

“Enjoy?”

“Yes, Buck, I mean as China challenges the West on the global stage, internally it continues to cultivate a strong nationalistic streak among the public.”

“Aw, Lei, we should have used that line in our review, ‘2 blockbusters fight a box office war across a U.S.-China political divide,’ published in this epic newspaper in January.”

“Right. Western soft power won that fight for Sony Pictures, Buck, showing it didn’t need receipts from the newly anointed world box office leader — China.”

“Bingo, Lei.”

“Buck, ‘No Way Home’ was a great movie.”

“You’re telling me. It’s the only Hollywood film since 2019 to top $1 billion at the global box office, and it’s now headed for $2 billion.”

“And, Buck, by not being able to see ‘No Way Home’ in our movie theaters in China, I broke my record of going to see the other eight with overpriced popcorn in hand.”

“And why was that?”

“OK, Socrates, get to the point.”

“Well, Lei, the mystery has been solved. Turns out China’s censors couldn’t stomach the grand finale of ‘No Way Home’ because of one character.”

“Who?”

“The Statue of Liberty.”

“Buck, that’s ridiculous. The Statue of Liberty is in all the films.”

“Well Lei, Sony Pictures rejected the demands of China’s censors to delete — or at least blur out — Lady Liberty. The film was banned and Sony lost millions in box office receipts from loyalists like you in China.”

“How many millions?”

“Well, the guesses range from $199 million — the box office receipts in China for ‘Far From Home’ in 2019 — to $340 million.”

“Buck, need I add that Sony is a company based in Japan?”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Lei.”

“Buck, I’m losing track of the number of what you call Sino-Japanese wars.”

“Now, Lei, I hope you see our U.S.-China relations hit rock bottom in 2021.”

“Wait, Buck, I thought Trump was Dr. Octopus.”

“Well, were you able to see the Statue of Liberty in ‘Homecoming’ (2017), ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ (2018) and ‘Far From Home’ (2019) at movie theaters there?”

“Yes.”

“So I guess Donald ‘China, China, China’ Trump was not so threatening to Beijing after all.”

“Well, we were able to cut ‘historical’ trade deals with him — and not live up to the agreements. Despite the bluster and the tariffs, I see the U.S. trade deficit hit a record in 2021 and the gap with China widened. ”

“Uh-huh.”

“We had so hoped for change in the Biden Administration, but so far no cigar.”

“And Spider-Man took the hit.”

“Buck, now I’m even more worried.”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding.

You can read more about Spider-Man in their film review, “2 blockbusters fight a box office war across a U.S.-China political divide,” here:

https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/2-blockbusters-fight-a-box-office-war-across-a-us-china-political-divide,11950

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