Threat of US-driven war is real, but it can be stopped, John Pilger says in new film

February 18, 2017

The Coming War On China
Written & directed by John Pilger
Screening now, visit site for details

The Coming War on China is possibly John Pilger’s best film in years.

In classic Pilger style, the Australian-born filmmaker — responsible for dozens of films critical of great power — depicts the threat the US war machine poses in the Asian region in the context of the rise of China.

Most importantly, he shines a light on the frontline resistance to it. Despite its title, the film does not suggest a US war against China is inevitable — rather a serious and growing threat that must be stopped by popular opposition.

At a time when US President Donald Trump is launching aggressive tweets and slogans at China, the film is given added pertinence.

It is a film of two parts. The first traces the history of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands — particularly the effects on the people in Bikini Atoll, systematically lied to and used as human guinea pigs.

The second covers the China-US relationship and resistance to the US military machine in the region.

Both would make solid films individually and at times it feels like you are watching two TV episodes stitched together. There is an element of repetition — I lost count of how many times the map of US military bases in the world was shown. Admittedly, it is an alarming graphic, in which Australia is well represented.

This structure does serve a purpose. We get to see and hear the complete disregard the US military machine has for the people of the Marshall Islands — the victims of great, yet little known, crimes.

Pilger digs up a trove of archival footage: from US officers visiting the Marshall Islands to “sell” nuclear testing, the magnitude of the nuclear tests, how the people of the Marshall Islands are prodded and probed like test animals and finally the role of Greenpeace helping to evacuate people from the radioactive Bikini Atoll in the 1980s, after the US has abandoned them to a radioactive hell.

This illustrates how US imperialism views the likes of the Marshall Islanders — as lesser, and expendable, people.

It is also a warning to the rest of the world of what happens if your home becomes part of the US military’s plans. This adds urgency to struggles against US bases in Japan depicted later in the film.

Pilger highlights the hundreds of US bases in the Asian region surrounding China — described as a “noose” by a US official. This “noose” includes Australia, with several US bases such as Pine Gap in the Northern Territory.

In one of the film’s multiple “gotcha” moments that Pilger is known for — whereby he interviews representatives of great power and lets them condemn themselves with their own words — a US official tries to argue, straight-faced and against known facts, that the US has no military bases in Australia.

Pilger runs through a history of US and Chinese relations that includes how the opium trade forced on China generated great wealth for the US and was crucial to US industrialisation in the 19th century.

Then he depicts the Mao-led Chinese Revolution when US corporations fled China, before exploring China’s current development, single party and capitalist system.

Pilger argues that China has undergone significant change over recent decades — developing along capitalist lines, remaining “communist” in name only. As China grows and the world’s political and economic centre of gravity shifts east, a new middle class is being created with tens of millions rising out of poverty.

However, the film also delves into the human rights abuses that mark China — in particular the terrible working conditions and mass poverty that underpin China’s growth.

Unlike in some of Pilger’s recent films, it does not stop at depicting injustice, but highlight the outbreak of strikes as working people fight for better working conditions. 

Rather than seeking to work constructively with a capitalist China, the film paints the US’s approach as that of an aggressive militarist bully.

Pilger then depicts the powerful grassroots resistance to US bases in the region.

Stylistically the film is classic Pilger. It is the no nonsense reporter on a mission to uncover the truth and speak truth to power.

In keeping with one of his trademarks, Pilger manages to wheel out all manner of former US military and foreign policy officials. Grilling them, he manages to show both how absurd and dangerous their views are.

The cinematography has also got an old-school news style to it — with lots of footage of Pilger meeting people and exploring the Marshall Islands and the locations of US bases. Music, graphics, visual effects and editing pace are all kept to a minimum.

It is certainly no atmospheric cinematic masterpiece. It bucks the trends seen in social change documentaries over the past decade that have explored new styles to advance their message — such as the more cinematic style used in This Changes Everything or the fast paced action-adventure style in Gasland.

Pilger’s blunt voice of god narration is the glue that holds the film together as it moves across the world and through history. If you are looking for more personal story-driven narrative with little analysis, this may prove off-putting.

Rather, it gets its message across through the strength of its analyses and harrowing first-hand accounts of the US military machine.

Its greatest strength is perhaps its portrayal of social movements — something that was noticeably lacking in Pilger’s recent films The War You Don’t See and Utopia.

It has footage, incredible in its rarity, of daily protests stretching back decades outside US military bases on Japanese and South Korean islands. Seeing communities take on the might of the US military machine is inspiring — even more so when they win victories.

Pilger, by shining a light on heroic and rarely reported movements is inspiring and gives hope.

As Pilger concludes: “We don’t have to accept the word of those who conjure up threats and false enemies to justify the business and profit of war. We have to recognise there is another superpower, and that is us, ordinary people everywhere.”

[Read an interview with John Pilger on the film and the US war drive. Visit for screening details.]

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