Good afternoon, everyone. And let me first say a sincere thank you to CDF for asking me to be here.
Um, but I want to tell you a little bit about a film that I was approached to make. A little while ago, 2013, so six years ago now, the film is called ‘Better Angels’. And it's about the future of the relationship between the United States and China.
Tensions in 2013 had been developing for quite some time. China had been accused of all kinds of naughty things, unfair trade practices, IP theft, currency manipulation, and there's a great deal of discussion in the States about what they were going to have to do about the rise of China.
So, um, back then I was no expert on China. And I have to confess that I am still no expert on your country. I don't speak mandarin, I’m not an academic. I'm not a political scientist.
I'm a filmmaker. And to do my job, what I need to do is to tell stories about people, which hopefully will have some relevance, some wider truth, and maybe kind of have some access to some realizations that you know unknown for people.
However, when I started making better angels, I made a big mistake because I didn't start by, looking at telling stories. I started by talking to a lot of experts. I talked to political scientists, to bankers, to economists, to all kinds of academics, in book-filled rooms. And it was a nightmare. It was awful.
And I realized very quickly that I was making a film which was kind of like a radio show with a light on. It was a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Because it just wasn't interesting. And it didn't have a pulse. It didn't have a heart.
So I stopped and I went back to the drawing board and I decided that the best way to even begin to scratch the surface of the subject was to make an anthropological film to look at China and America as if they were to tribes two alien tribes, kind of staring at each other through the undergrowth across the large body of water and not really knowing how to kind of assess what was happening on the other side of the river. Those guys on the other side were they friends? Or were they foes?
And interestingly, that still seems to be the operative question today.
‘Better Angels’ was financed by Americans, and it was made mostly for an American audience. Why? Because I think it's fair to say that the average Chinese man on the street pretty much understands America far better than the average American understands China.
Why? Because I think it's a in a sense, it's a tribute. It's a tribute to the American propaganda machine, to Hollywood to movies, to television, to a free press, to an active intellectual and cultural life.
I’m English, but you know, growing up, I was raised on American movies and the American television series as a teenager. I thought I understood America pretty well. I think we all think we understand America. And, that's great. Americans have always been wonderful telling their own story. China, not so good.
It's not what China does. It never has been what China does, and it's still regrettably, is not what China does. Well, there can be all kinds of explanations, cultural and otherwise.
But one would like to think that this moment in history, when the world desperately needs to understand your country. China should be doing a better job of telling its own story. America has done it for century marvelously.
I have to say, I think it's China's turn. And it seems to me and I really heart, I have a heartfelt wish that China begins to look inward at itself and tell its own stories to the world because the world fears China, they fear what they call the rise of China. And it's not because China is such a threat. It's because they don't understand your country. So something to bear in mind.
‘Better Angels’ is our small attempt to rebalance that kind of information deficit that exists. Now, it's tricky to speak about a film that probably most of you here have not seen. So perhaps, I can start by showing you not the movie, obviously, but the trailer for the film, the trailer that we made to show to Americans to get Americans into the movie theaters. So let's just, I'll shut up for a second. Look at that, and then we can discuss it. Thank you.
Oh, did you hear Kissinger at the end? If we are to clash? Henry Kissinger told me that if I made this film, I would be, um, he used more colorful language, but I will not use that language, but I will say that. He said I would be threatened. I would be criticized. I would be ostracized.Um, and it seems to be happening. I've been called an American traitor despite the fact I’m British.
But it's clear that we have a problem, right? It's clear that we need to do something about the circumstances. So that's why we made ‘Better Angels’ to try and at least open a little window of insight for Americans into what this relationship had at stake and who you were, who the Chinese people were, so the film's approach.
This is Memo Mata. Memo was a Texan, a teacher and the football coach who came to China looking for a job.
We filmed him in Shanghai, where he'd just been voted twice teacher of the year for getting great results out of his young Chinese students by teaching them American football. Now Memo discovered the fundamentals of football, which I know nothing about.
Thinking as a team working and cooperating together, what he called group work meant that once his kids got back into the class, they applied those new ways of thinking and collaborating to their schoolwork. The class work on their scores went up.
In a Confucian education system where individual excellence and achievement is valued, Memo’s kids had never ever been encouraged to work together. And that simple innovation, which would have been second nature to his kids in Texas, made a measurable difference here in China. For his excellence. He was given a raise. He was given a promotion, and his wife, who was Chinese, was delighted.
A little later in the film, we balance Memo story with the story of this man. His name is Li Mianjun. And as a kid, he was a Math prodigy, who developed a lifelong love for the abacus, the centuries old Chinese calculating device that was used for centuries, principally as a merchant store.
Mr. Li discovered that the abacus could be re-purposed to teach math to little kids. And he could get extraordinary results. So we were a little skeptical of this. And we took Mr. Li to Los Angeles.
We took him and his abacus to a largely Hispanic school in south central Los Angeles, which is a poor neighborhood.
The results were amazing. In less than two hours, seven-year-olds were using the abacus to solve complicated math problems.
I was terrible at Math. I mean, I would love to have had this when I was a kid, it was remarkable. It was a revelation and a compelling lesson for me. And I hope for our audience. And what can be achieved if we in the west who struggle mightily to engage our kids, to develop an interest in Math, if we could be persuaded to utilize this ancient Chinese invention.
The point of these two stories, two education stories to remind our audience that neither China nor America have a monopoly on good ideas. And we really can learn and benefit from each others knowledge, if the willingness is there.
A second big mistake that I made making this film was that I thought if I was making a film about America and China that I'd be largely shooting in America and China. I was wrong because what I failed to appreciate when I started making the movie was that China is a global power. And to get an accurate assessment of China today, you have to go all over the world to see how China is in the world.
This was terrible news for my finances. And I don't think they will ever forgive me, but god bless them, they kept the money coming. And so we went to Africa. We went to the middle east, across Europe.
And I want to tell you a little story about, a place that we went in Ethiopia, where we came across this guy called Bao Wangli. He was a Chinese engineer helping to build a desperately-needed bridge, up near the headwaters of the Blue Nile. It’s very remote.
Bao was twenty-six and married with a son he'd never met.
He wasn't there when his young wife gave birth. And because of his geographic isolation, he could only call her once a week by cell phone. Bao’s Ethiopian assignment was for three years. He actually stayed for five with one home visit after eighteen months.
This was a huge sacrifice that he and his family willingly made, because the pay was better for a young engineer in Africa, than it might have been had he stayed in China.
And we told Bao’s story to Americans, not because it was unusual, but precisely because it was not unusual. It's all too familiar to the Chinese in the past forty years since China's opening up, there have been millions of Bao’s stories.
Countless families have been separated, forty million left behind children being raised by their grandparents, while their mothers and fathers are in China's cities trying to find work and money and save for a better life.
We in the West see and hear about the extraordinary transformation of China. But perhaps we don't sufficiently comprehend the tremendous price the Chinese people have paid this huge sacrifice that has been made. This supported China's economic miracle.
What ‘Better Angels’ was trying to do was to put a human face on the Chinese people and the Chinese experience to forge a better understanding between the two nations, despite the best efforts of some of the folks in the west who demonize China.
Ironically, we came to realize that the Chinese and American people are fundamentally far more similar than they are different. When it comes to innovation, hard work, creativity, entrepreneurship, indisputably these two countries lead the world. I'm going to steal a line from Tom Friedman, who I just watched, give a lovely speech. He said America and China are one country, two systems. I wish I had written that.
We made ‘Better Angels’. It took us three years. And then it came as a shock, just as we were finishing the movie when Donald Trump became the US President. And worse than that, he followed through on his campaign pledge to take a much more adversarial and confrontational stance towards China. Suddenly, unexpectedly we had an Obama era movie in the age of Trump.
You remember those finances I was telling you about. They were not happy. So we had to start again. Uh, we didn't start from scratch, but we needed to recalibrate our film and make it topical and relevant for these new times.
But oddly, and certainly unexpectedly to me, President Trump's continued obsession with China and his imposition of ever more punitive tariffs has meant that our now six year old movie is still relevant and pertinent. Today it's still a big story.
And although I confess, I'm not a huge fan of the American President. I feel we do owe Trump a debt, because every time he opens his mouth, he seems to sell our movie and we don't have to pay him.
So after years of continually traveling around China in the world, making a film about an increasingly vexed super power relationships. What insights and observations have I made, and what conclusions have I drawn?
First, I feel that China should not be seen as an enemy.
In trying to raise the living standards of 1.4 billion people, it's doing what any nation would do to pull itself out of poverty and privation.
Countries that are lagging behind of always try to play catch up by pretty much any means that work. It's indisputable. The China has appropriated ideas, innovations, technologies from abroad. There shouldn't be any blame for that. It's understandable. When a country is transitioning out of underdevelopment, what can we expect?
And who was the world's preeminent IP thief at the end of the 19th and the early 20th century? Who can guess the United States shamelessly appropriated, adopted, adapted, and often improved technologies born in Britain, in western Europe。
If only China and the United States can agree on how to level the playing field, which is why they should continue to negotiate, to try to find improved trade rules, that can be of a mutual benefit. Instead of waging this unwinnable trade war, which benefits neither side.
China has been made the whipping boy for rising inequality in the United States and constantly been accused of job stealing. It wasn't the Chinese who shipped those jobs to China. Those decisions were made in America, and they were made by factory owners who wanted to stay competitive.
And interestingly, in ‘Better Angels’, we show that what happened to those factory workers in the mid-west, in Ohio, all across the mid-west is now beginning to happen here in China to Chinese factory workers, because they are facing competition and losing their jobs to even cheaper competitors in Africa and Southeast Asia. The hard truth is that globalization is agnostic with respect to its victims.
After six years of shooting ‘Better Angels’, I'm not pro-China and I'm not pro the shenanigans of the Present American administration. But I am pro China and America getting along because to me that's plain commonsense.
If the world's two great superpowers can deal with each other openly and honestly, working together on issues of mutual interest, like climate change, for example, while respecting each other’s differences when the inevitable disagreements happen. And not only will the US and China benefit, but the whole world will sleep easier.
One inescapable fact before I end because I'm right at the end of my time, I know. I witness repeatedly during my time shooting here, is that the Chinese don't hate America. Americans don't realize this.
They admire it for all that. It is achieved, for the freedoms that enjoys and for its vibrant culture of innovation, perhaps it's time for the American people to learn more about this amazing country and its people and accord China the respect it deserves.
Many in the west still fear the rise of China, but it wouldn't hurt to remember that it's less arise than it is a renaissance of a civilization that has contributed immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge for close to 5000 years. In the space of just forty years, China has reinvented itself as a technological super state that can compete with the best in the world, an achievement for which the Chinese people can be justifiably proud.
China was always a technological super state. We in the west just were largely unaware that you even existed.
I can only hope that in the months and years ahead, level heads might sooner or later prevail and that our conflicts prove temporary and resolvable for we surely have more to gain from this unique and extraordinary country when inflammatory provocation is replaced by sincere, mutually beneficial cooperation.