James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is well on its way to becoming a global cultural phenomenon. The director’s latest mash-up of romance, action, and big-budget special effects has, like his previous film Titanic, drawn in record setting audiences across the globe. From New York to Shanghai, people have waited for hours to immerse themselves in Avatar’s 3-D fantasy world, an alien planet called Pandora.
In the West, Avatar has been praised more for its feats of technical ingenuity than its unsophisticated stance on such social ills as corporate greed, environmental degradation, and colonialism. But in China, Cameron’s depiction of the struggle between ruthless developers and the alien Na’vi has opened an unexpected Pandora’s Box. The film has provoked both praise and criticism from Chinese viewers, who see parallels between the movie’s plot and one of the nation’s most prominent social issues: the forced removal of Chinese citizens from their homes for government development projects.
With few exceptions, land in China is owned by the state. Although private citizens can lease land for varying periods, the government retains strong privileges of eminent domain, and it often exercises its power to claim prime pieces of real estate for development. The reasons for these seizures range from the benign to the corrupt. While some lands are claimed for essential public works projects, others become shopping malls and vacation resorts, cash cows to line the pockets of China’s elite.
Public opposition to these seizures has always existed. But as Chinese real estate values skyrocket and land confiscations cost residents more than ever, the number and visibility of protests have shot up. Passive resistance has become a popular strategy for those threatened by eminent domain, and the Chinese media is increasingly filled with stories of brave homeowners facing down bulldozers. In a recent case that galvanized public opinion, a woman set herself on fire rather than allow developers to force her from her home.
In this environment, Avatar has set off a firestorm of controversy. Across the Chinese blogosphere, debate has focused on the parallels between the movie’s story and recent incidents in China, prompting some to wonder if Cameron’s film might be intended as an attack on the Chinese government. Others have rallied behind the film, arguing that it has raised public awareness of the unfairness of China’s eminent domain laws. Writing in the government-run newspaper China Daily, Raymond Zhou noted, “[Avatar has] inadvertently hit… a nerve in a country where the bulldozer is a sign of both progress and threat.”
While in the U.S. controversy often translates into increased ticket sales, in China, it is equally likely to get a movie banned. Chinese officials have become increasingly worried about domestic instability arising from public dissatisfaction with government policies, and they have moved to quash potential sources of disquiet, censoring social networking sites, gagging novelists, and applying pressure to foreign events that feature Chinese dissidents. Now, as the debate surrounding Avatar heats up, prominent media critics are speculating that the film might disappear from Chinese theaters. If that were to happen, the decision would no doubt come as a shock to Cameron, who is more often criticized for his films’ enormous budgets than their political content.