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Distorting Contemporary China

A new movie entitled Red Corner was previewed at MIT on Oct. 29, 1997. As a Chinese student at MIT, I felt hurt by its distortion of contemporary China. I oppose the arbitrary demonization of China. I oppose the rehearsal of racist formulas in the name of the first serious contemporary movie set in China about China done by a Westerner, as Producer/Director Jon Avnet promotes the movie. If these distortions are the norm, such communities as MIT must continually pursue understanding.

In the movie, an American lawyer, visiting China to negotiate a breakthrough satellite communications contract, enjoys a night of culturally embellished sex with a female Chinese model. When the model is found murdered, he is charged with the crime. The bulk of the movie portrays his subsequent mistreatment within the Chinese judicial system: torture and attempted assassination at the hands of police compound the injustices of an accelerated trial before judges determined to administer the death penalty regardless of the evidence. At the end of the movie, the hero, along with his female American-trained Chinese counsel, demonstrates a police-aided frame-up by his Chinese business counterpart. The American reclaims his innocence and leaves China, embracing his attorney and urging her to go with him.

This well-worn narrative of a stranger's abuse in a backward, xenophobic, and violent land, adopted to a current Sino-American context, cannot serve as an accurate portrayal of contemporary China as Avnet claims. China is, of course, complex and changing. Contrary to the movie's portrayal, it is no longer a police state, patrolling every fashion show and nightclub (which themselves only superficially represent China's transformations). For all their powers to abuse, military generals cannot, as in the film, shoot people at will in a courtroom. Though trials lack the presumption of innocence, they are not normally the hasty theaters of penance and punishment - Red Corner's would-be cultural lesson, least of all in murder cases against foreigners.

I admit that there are still dark sides in China. Most Chinese people hope to improve rather than preserve them. I also sincerely welcome critiques. However, critiques should be based upon facts rather than upon projection and malice. China has opened its door to the world for almost 20 years. Today, there are more and more interactions between China and other countries, particularly America. Given my personal commitment to this interaction and education, I cannot understand, or can understand all too well, why Hollywood produced such a movie as Red Corner which exhibits only ignorance of contemporary China. I am also dismayed with the applause with which so many MIT students received the film on that night.

Wenkai He G