Warriors on the Red Road
What do you get when you send a television film crew into the wilds of western China with a dramatic television actor from Hong Kong, a Chinese-Canadian film star, a boy band rapper, a well-known actress, and a survival expert from New Zealand who calls himself “The Kiwi Bushman”? You get a compelling documentary survival series with major commercial backing that might look to global audiences like simple entertainment.
But the six-episode series Journey of Warriors (勇敢者的征程), produced by China’s Tencent Video with the US multinational television conglomerate Discovery, Inc., along with China International Communication Center (CICC), is more than a simple joyride into harmless voyeurism and escapism. It is part of an effort by the Chinese state, with international partners, to be more appealing in its push for global discourse power — an effort that requires all those involved to be less than forthcoming about its origins.
The Art of Foreign Acceptance
Journey of Warriors follows five celebrities as they attempt arduous treks – à la Naked and Afraid – along routes traversed by the Red Army during the Long March in 1934-1935 and during China’s struggle against the invading Japanese army, is meant as a celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial. As these celebrity adventurers scale the face of Jiajin Mountain (夹金山), the first snow-laden peak the Red Army is said to have crossed during the Long March, or as they fashion bamboo stalks into a raft to tackle the Wu River (乌江), where a Red Army regiment once made a difficult crossing, Journey of Warriors is also an allegory for China’s contemporary journey as the country’s leaders envision it.
When Xi Jinping spoke of the Long March back in October 2021, stressing the need to “channel the courage and determination of those revolutionary soldiers on a new march, one toward national rejuvenation,” he might as easily have been speaking about the series.
It was certainly was no accident that Journey of Warriors was released in China on November 9, the day after the opening of the 6th Plenum that brought the year’s political culmination with the release of a new official resolution on the Party’s history valorizing Xi’s role. The CCP’s general secretary is in the midst of his own long march toward the Party’s 20th National Congress in the fall, where he will likely be draped in the mantle of “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) and given the mandate to rule China through another decade as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. It was in the course of the historical Long March, as the Red Army traversed 5,000 miles of rough terrain in a retreat to avoid annihilation at the hands of pursuing Republican forces, that Mao achieved his rise as the Party’s undisputed leader.
Actress Zhang Xinyu sums up the sense of historical overlap in a dramatic trailer for the television series as she traverses a steep hillside: “We will retrace the thrill of when our red grandmothers were being pursued. . . . The challenge has begun. This is the journey of the warriors.”
The series can at times be truly entertaining, and within China it has been received enthusiastically, drawing more than five billion views per episode after its November launch, and earning a 9.6 out of 10 rating from users at Tencent Video.
But Journey of Warriors is also domestic entertainment with a serious international mission. China has gambled on the series as an effective form of “external propaganda” (外宣), hoping to influence views of China across the world. At the 11th China Academy Awards of Documentary Film in December 2021, the series took away the prize for best international communication, where it was praised as “boldly innovative,” “perfectly integrating stories of revolutionary history with the international communication discourse system in a way that foreigners find easy to understand and accept.”
One commentary on the series in mid-November, published on a WeChat public account operated by a research center under the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), bore the telling headline: “Journey of Warriors: Turning External Propaganda Documentaries into Blockbusters for the World to See.”
China has struggled for many years to bring smart story-telling together with high-end production to create propaganda that is captivating and effective. The CCP has yearned for the magic formula to build credibility internationally, to bolster its “cultural soft power,” and to counter what it sees as Western domination of global discourse. And for as many years, state media and government-affiliated producers have failed, often because the system is too inflexible, its message too simplistic.
Journey of Warriors, however, may be the nearest thing to watchable to emerge from the field of external propaganda. The series was released outside China on November 28, 2021. And thanks to the strong distribution channels provided by Discovery, Inc., it has reached substantial audiences across Southeast Asia, as well as in India on Discovery+, and on Prime Video. Given Discovery’s global reach, that audience is sure to grow as the series, which the state-run CGTN blandly referred to as “China’s first international co-produced adventure documentary,” is rolled out in other regions and other languages.
To burnish the series’ international appeal, the producers brought on television star Josh James, who Discovery introduces as “the renowned Discovery explorer and the world’s top survival expert,” as well as award-winning director Phil Stebbing, who has worked in the past with the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.
James, who rose to fame through his online adventure vlogs on hunting, trapping and surviving in the wilds of New Zealand, and who starred in the series Dual Survivor, lends the series an air of wild man credibility as well as being the obligatory “foreign friend” on screen. (For more on the history of the CCP’s employment in foreign affairs of the “foreign friend,” or waiguo pengyou (外国朋友), we recommend the wonderful paper Friendlit by another New Zealander, professor Anne-Marie Brady.)
Chinese cast members include Wallace Chung Hon-leung (锺汉良), an actor from Hong Kong who has made his career starring in mainland films and television dramas; Shawn Dou (窦骁), a Chinese Canadian actor who played the lead role in Zhang Yimou’s 2010 film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree; Zhang Xinyu (张馨予), an actress, singer and model; and Yan Xujia (焉栩嘉), an actor, rapper and member of the idol boy band R1SE.
Landing on the program from their living rooms in Southeast Asia or India, television viewers might be drawn in by Journey of Warriors. But once we understand how this series is intended to work its propaganda magic, slipping its message of CCP-led national glory right into our entertainment fare, should we tune in? Or should we change the channel?
Co-Producing with the CCP
Entertaining or not, Journey of Warriors, like many of the programs in which CICC has been involved, raises serious questions about transparency in international documentary and entertainment programming. Before they tune in, audiences across the world – many paying for content through subscription services – should probably be informed about the parties involved in a production as well as its purpose beyond pure entertainment.
For its part, Discovery has been opaque about its longstanding co-production relationship in China. Journey of Warriors was jointly produced with Tencent Video, the streaming channel operated by the Chinese tech giant. Less known, however, is the third partner, the China International Communication Center (五洲传播中心), or CICC, which is listed prominently in Chinese media coverage and on Chinese-language promotional posters. Though CICC routinely bills itself as your go-to co-production partner in China, and as a source of essential video footage through its Video China platform, the company is a propaganda subsidiary under the State Council Information Office, whose clear mission is external communication.
Company registration records prior to 2019 show that CICC was controlled by the Central Propaganda Department, the department being listed along with the Information Office (these essentially being the same office) as the sole shareholder. During that time, CICC worked closely with Discovery in the production of a number of documentary series, including China: Time of Xi, a production attributed in state media coverage to the UK-based Meridian Line Films, which previously was 85 percent held by CICC.
The most recent registry records show that CICC is now held by China’s Ministry of Finance. But CICC is essentially an active media arm the State Council Information Office. The group, for example, runs multiple websites designed for external communication on issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet. One of these sites is humanrights.cn, the official website of the Chinese Society for Human Rights Studies (国人权研究会), or “CSHRS,” an ostensible non-government organization in fact operated directly by the State Council Information Office.
The distribution of China: Time of Xi and subsequent productions involving CICC, including Journey of Warriors, apparently stems from a deal inked in 2015 with Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, under which both sides agreed to “produce content related to China.” But the line between content related to China and content brazenly promoting official CCP narratives can be very thin indeed. In the case of Journey of Warriors, the line completely disappears – if, that is, you read Chinese.
Aside from the three joint producers, Chinese-language promotional posters for the series note that the “guiding unit” for the project is the Foreign Promotion Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department (中宣部对外推广局). Outside China, these connections and agendas immediately become invisible to audiences watching the series.
A press release from Discovery promises that Journey of Warriors will “bring global audiences infinitely closer to real historical experiences by means of real-life entertainment,” without being explicit about what historical episodes are being addressed. Readers are told only that the series “relive[s] the dangerous trek that the Chinese military endured decades ago,” which it also calls “[one of] the most epic voyages in history.” No mention at all is made of CICC or the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.
In a description accompanying a trailer for Journey of Warriors on its YouTube channel, Discovery+ India explains:
It’s the journey of true daredevils who will face one of the most challenging environments on Earth. They will give it their all to make their way through the toughest of terrains and uncharted territories, a road not meant for the faint-hearted.
Foreign language coverage of the series from Chinese state media similarly obscures its genesis. An English-language news brief from Xinhua News Agency omits mention of CICC and the Central Propaganda Department, reporting only that Journey of Warriors was “co-produced by Tencent Video, a Chinese streaming platform, and Discovery Channel.” The same brief is shared online by China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Information Office. The story, however, includes an image of another Chinese-language promotional poster, sourced from Tencent Video’s Weibo account, that again confirms the involvement of CICC and the Foreign Promotion Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department.
The Road to Transparency
The question is not whether such stories should be told internationally, or whether they are compelling or entertaining. Viewers may feel genuine interest in knowing that Red Army soldiers cut the glare of the sun coming off the snow on Jiajin Mountain by fashioning blinders out of horsehair. They may be amused as they watch Wallace Chung and Josh James imbibing “pepper water” in preparation for their cold ascent.
But why are the parties involved in Journey of Warriors choosing – and only overseas – to omit key aspects of the story of the series’ production?
In an address on external propaganda and international discourse power back in May, Xi Jinping urged Party propaganda workers to “build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Xi stressed the same point recently at a congress on literature and art, where he also praised the recent propaganda blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin as a great success overseas. In fact, the film is a flop outside China, just one more casualty of the CCP’s insistence on a unified “Chinese story” delivered through rigid frames that alienate global audiences.
Love may certainly arise from compelling and colorful programming. But credibility and respect must come also through honesty and clarity. International viewers have a right to know the deeper story, and the deeper agenda, underlying programs like Journey of Warriors or China: Time of Xi.
For its part, Discovery states in its Code of Ethics: “We act and make decisions with integrity. We are honest, open, genuine and transparent in our work.” Perhaps it is time that the network applies this principle to its production relationships with China.