Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Resisting Counter-Factual Speculation: China And Time-Travel Movies

In past postings, I have looked at how uneasy Americans can be about counter-factual discussions around the history of the USA:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2007/11/denying-counter-factual-issues-around.html and http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/06/when-counter-factual-becomes.html  This seems to stem from an enduring if unstated faith in the so-called 'manifest destiny', i.e. that the USA was always destined to turn out the way that it has and so any discussions of alternatives is a waste of time.  Naturally I strongly oppose that viewpoint, not least because it allows a state to argue that whatever policy it adopts must be correct because it was 'destined' to happen.  The ridiculousness of that is immediately apparent if you compare the policies of President Barack Obama and his immediate predecessor George W. Bush.  Which was truly manifesting the USA's destiny?  Clearly that is not happening, unless it is the USA's destiny is to constantly chop and change. 

All states exist as a result of a series of accidents combined with deliberate actions, some of which succeeded, some of which failed.  As I have noted before, not every alternative, in the long run, would have led to a great change in history as we have known it.  Conversely, small differences can lead to vast changes in what happened.  Each counter-factual needs to be weighed on its own merits.  In addition, we have to recognise that this is no more than an intellectual exercise, we cannot 'prove' the propositions, but saying that, in many branches of science, that is the same.  Some dismiss counter-factual analysis as a 'game'.  It can be entertaining and is the basis of an extensive sub-genre of fiction dating back many decades.  However, counter-factual analysis is also a vital tool in properly weighing up the different elements which went into our history.  Thus, as I have argued before, it is something that should not be dismissed: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2007/05/usefulness-of-what-if-history.html

Now, it is probably on the basis of the usefulness of counter-factual analysis, that on 31st March 2011, China announced 'guidelines' effectively banning time-travel movies and television programmes.  In a statement from Li Jingsheng head of television drama at China's State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has said that such dramas (and comedies): 'lack positive thoughts and meaning'; 'its content and the exaggerated performance style are questionable'; 'Many stories are totally made-up and are made to strain for an effect of novelty';  'They casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.'  Of course, many of these things could be charges laid against many genres of fiction, for example, romance, Westerns, crime stories and even historical drams.  It is the last elements about promoting feudalism and fatalism which really cut to the heart of the issue. 

ommentators about Chinese society believe this move has been prompted by recent programmes featuring happy times in China's past (though it is pretty difficult to find any era in Chinese history when a substantial group of Chinese were not suffering).  The key example is 'The Palace', as pointed out by Professor Nie Wei, from the School of Movie and Television Drama Studies of Shanghai University.  The series features a 21st-century girl travelling back in time to the Qing dynasty (which ruled China 1644-1911).  The episodes for the next series are being rewritten.

The movies and series has effectively banned in China on this basis include 'The Terminator' (1984) and presumably its sequels and television series; 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure' (1989) and its sequel; any version of 'A Christmas Carol'; 'Planet of the Apes' (1968) and its sequels, series and remake; 'Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery' (1997) and its sequels;  'Back To The Future' (1985) and its two sequels, 'Black Knight' (2001), 'The X-Files' (1993-2002) though I am not certain that many episodes of this actually featured time travel, 'Doctor Who' (1963-) and 'Star Trek' (1966-9) and presumably all the movies and sequel series.

I can only think of one time travel episode, in the original 'Star Trek' series, 'The City on the Edge of Forever' in the original series which the crew prevent a woman (played by Joan Collins!) being run over in 1930s USA so leading to a subsequent Nazi victory in World War Two including the USA coming under Nazi control.  Apparently, however, three other episodes feature time travel, one taking crew members to 1968, one to 1969, one taking them back 3 days and one to two historic time periods on an alien planet. There is also time travel in the movie, 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home' (1986).  

The fatalism would be seen in movies like 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) in which a man tries to change his own life by travelling back in time on a number of occasions only to constantly make things worse; in 'Running Against Time' (1990) the repeated attempts by three time travellers to avoid US intervention in the Vietnam War only exacerbate the conflict.  However, this then shows up the contradictions in the Chinese guidelines.  They oppose both time travel that can make things turn out better and they dislike time travel that worsens the situation.  They oppose time travel stories that only impact on the fate of a few individuals and also ones which affect the whole world such as 'The Terminator' and 'Star Trek IV' or 'A Sound of Thunder' (2005) which radically sees humans replaced by a reptillian species as a result of a time traveller to the Cretaceous period treading on a creature.  Of course, the Chinese government could insist that all time travel stories adhere to the Novikov self-consistency principle, that, in fact you cannot alter history as it has happened, any attempt to do so will fail, as shown in 'Twelve Monkeys' (1995) and 'The Time Machine' (2002). 

One movie not mentioned by the Chinese is 'Fatherland' (1994) perhaps because though the book it was based on was a best seller, the movie had little success, especially in the USA.  The movie does not feature time travel, rather it is one of the only actual counter-factual movies in that it envisages a world in which Nazi Germany won the Second World War.  Though not stated, it must be assumed that in such a scenario Japan would have been victorious in the Pacific as victory in Europe would have allowed its forces to be supplement by Germany and its allies.  Despite the fact that Germany and Japan were always awkward allies (as history of wartime Shanghai show), Germany presumably would have put experienced U-boat packs into the Pacific; experienced German pilots and aircraft into the Pacific and China and provided SS units to exterminate Chinese Communists behind the frontlines.  It seems unlikely Japan would have conquered all of China but it would have held the major cities and wealthiest regions, so today, North-East China would still be Manchukuo and Communism would have been eliminated from the Japanese colonies in eastern and central China. 

I believe the movies listed owe more to their international renown than the portrayal of events in specific movies that is what has drawn Chinese state attention to them.  However, there is also the factor of discussion around time travel and the possibilities it may offer to change a country which is what alarms the Chinese government the most.   Despite this, It seems that, in the opposition to time travel, the Chinese are also dismissing a lot of general science fiction.  This may be the authorities' intention. 

Many of these series and movies have other concepts, discussion of which would be seen as a threat, especially 'Star Trek' which often handled moral judgements in story lines and elements such as discrimination.  A fuller part of the SARFT statement suggests this is the case: 'fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and even a lack of positive thinking.' 

The timing seems to be in preparation for the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China being established (and, of course, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution which established the Chinese Republic which the Communists did not control entirely until 1950) and so '[a]ll levels should actively prepare to launch vivid reproductions of the Chinese revolution, the nation’s construction and its reform and opening up.'  Of course, if we travelled back to 1971 for the 50th anniversary, the party members then would be in horror of the capitalist economy now in place in China and would see predictions for 2011 which featured China as one of the leading capitalist states of the world as completely counter-revolutionary and in need of suppression.  Thus, even in its own history, the Communist Party of China has gone down 'alternative' paths that would have been considered highly inappropriate to discuss, even within living memory.

You can see the easy step from thinking about time travel to challenging the current regime, whether to argue that the more Maoist era or the Imperial era or the brief periods of democracy were better than the current state.  Of course, the kind of question that the Chinese regime fears most is 'what if the democracy movement of Tiananmen Square had not been suppressed in 1989?' and other similar ones about Mao being ousted or the Chinese Civil War having a different outcome, all things that may allow people to think that an alternative path would have been better for the country's people. 

China has not been alone in having such concerns.  When the National Curriculum for the UK was launched in 1992, the history section of it instructed teachers specifically not to even suggest that any time period or country was better to live in than the UK at the time.  The Conservative government was seemingly as insecure as the current Chinese government. 

It is interesting that the two greatest Powers in the world at the moment, the USA and China are the ones who are most nervous about any speculation that their histories could have turned out very differently to how they did.  In the USA pressure tends to come by brow-beating or dismissal as irrelevant.  In China, a totalitarian dictatorship which practices extensive censorship, the approach is much more direct.  However, in my view this only adds value to the role of counter-factual analysis. After all, if the Chinese government sees counter-factual speculation as potentially such a threatening tool, one leveraging greater democracy and liberty in the country, to the extent that movies even speculating about it must be censored, then it has some real potency beyond mere entertainment.

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