China’s state TV may be trolling the US over Afghanistan with a movie

People trying to get into Kabul’s airport on Monday.
People trying to get into Kabul’s airport on Monday.
Image: Reuters
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In the years after the 9/11 attacks on the US, Chinese academics and the public increasingly began to talk about the US as a declining power. That view was only confirmed by the US retreat from Afghanistan and the precipitous fall of the country to the Taliban, which occupied the presidential palace in Kabul over the weekend.

The chaotic scenes from Afghanistan as the US departs dominated online discussion in China this morning (Aug. 16), with many convinced that CCTV 6, the state broadcaster’s movie channel, was once again surreptitiously commenting on foreign affairs via its movie broadcast schedule. Early today, the hashtag #CCTV6 airs A Dog’s Way Home temporarily shot to the top of the trending topics list on social media platform Weibo, and has so far been viewed more than 500 million times. The movie, which was released in 2019 by Columbia Pictures, tells the story of a dog traveling 400 miles in search of its owner.

State-owned newspaper the Beijing Daily started the hashtag, and published a story that featured screenshots of users saying they “can’t help but connect the film’s title” to the Taliban’s seizure of control in Afghanistan, with many saluting the channel for its timing. The piece was widely republished by other state-owned outlets, including Global Times.

Users commented under the hashtag, saying “am I thinking too much?” implying that they believe the film’s title is connected to the developments in Afghanistan. “US imperialism ran away with its tail between its legs,” said one comment under the hashtag.

Beijing Daily also noted that the channel yesterday aired Dunkirk, the 2017 movie about the Allied mass evacuation from France in the face of Germany’s advance in 1940.

CCTV 6 has long been believed to comment on international affairs with its movie broadcast choices, though the channel has never acknowledged a connection. The channel drew applause for airing the movie Pearl Habor in April 2014, when former US president Barack Obama visited Japan and pledged support to Tokyo in its island dispute with China.

China’s official reaction on Afghanistan

Military experts are divided on whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could have played out differently. US forces have been there since October 2001, when the US launching Operation Enduring Freedom to hunt down 9/11 planner Osama Bin Laden and root out Al Qaeda camps. Last year, then US president Donald Trump reached an agreement with the insurgents to withdraw all US forces by May of this year. While that deadline slipped by a few months, president Joe Biden sought to complete the retreat before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. After the sudden fall of Kabul, the US and other countries have rushed to evacuate citizens and Afghan staff, while Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani has fled the country.

China, which shares a border with Afghanistan and invests in the country’s mining and energy sectors, currently has no plans to evacuate its embassy staff. Amid fears in the country that the militant group will carry out reprisals, on Monday (Aug. 16), Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on the Taliban to establish an “inclusive” government with other factions and groups:

We hope the Afghan Taliban can form solidarity with all factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and build a broad-based and inclusive political structure suited to the national realities, so as to lay the foundation for achieving enduring peace in the country.

Last month, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met a Taliban delegation while state media Global Times on Aug. 13 carried a piece quoting the leader of an Afghan opposition party saying the country’s transitional government must include the Taliban and other opposition forces. Though many countries have said they won’t recognize a Taliban government that takes control by military force, rather than in a negotiated settlement, China and Russia are signaling they are prepared to do so.

The painful scenes accompanying the US exit from Afghanistan, meanwhile, are adding to the belief among many Chinese nationalists that the US is on an inevitable decline, a theory that has been gathering steam since the Covid-19 outbreak, which people in China largely think the US handled poorly. This time, many Chinese internet users say the US withdrawal is “an undeniable failure” in the country’s diplomatic history, comparing the incident to the US’s retreat from Saigon in the Vietnam War, as well as the Korean War.

“It rushed into a new round of strategic profligacy in 2001. Core decision-makers in the US government no longer pursued a clear and functional goal, but were trapped into a swamp of trivial and endless puzzles,” wrote Shen Yi, professor international relations at Fudan University, in an Aug. 17 opinion column in the Global Times. “They have been treating US strategic strength and resources as a blank check and expending it without limit.”

Chinese state media warn Taiwan

State media and nationalist bloggers are also making the case that Taiwan, which has long counted on the US as a staunch ally in its precarious position as a self-governing island that China claims as its own territory, could similarly find itself abandoned in the case of a military conflict with Beijing. US policy has been strategically vague as to what Washington would do in case of a Chinese attempt to “reunify” with Taiwan militarily, but some experts say the in the face of a more powerful China the US should shift to a policy of “strategic clarity.”

One can’t help but wonder if state media have carried the metaphor through to its logical conclusion—in this scenario, who is in the role of the Taliban?

Concern for Afghanistan’s women

There are also Chinese voices expressing sympathy for civilians in Afghanistan, with many citing a letter from female Afghan director Sahraa Karimi who urges the international community to offer the country’s women and artists protection from the Taliban, which represses the rights of women based on its conservative Muslim values. “Anyone who is joking about or even cheering for what is happening now [in Afghanistan] represents the deepest evilness,” said a user.

Tripti Lahiri contributed to this article.