Foreign Policy: China's Fear Of Alien Invasion Chinese Theaters have pulled the popular Avatar film from theaters to make way for a Confucius biopic. Many Chinese bloggers, however, surmise the the government shortened the run of the film out of fear of some unsettling anti-government themes.

Foreign Policy: China's Fear Of Alien Invasion

Costumed Avatar fans look on in the crowd at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Chinese theaters have pulled the film out of fear of government backlash. Ross Land/Getty Images hide caption

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Ross Land/Getty Images

Costumed Avatar fans look on in the crowd at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Chinese theaters have pulled the film out of fear of government backlash.

Ross Land/Getty Images

To experience the visual spectacle that is Avatar, Chinese audiences have flocked to theaters, with some reportedly paying up to $100 for a ticket. Yet, despite its spectacular success in China, the film has run into some trouble. Authorities have decided to pull the 2-D version of the movie from theaters to make way for a Chinese-made film on the life of Confucius. Why?

Part of the move is undoubtedly aimed at promoting homegrown cultural products at the expense of a formidable foreign competitor. But that can't be the only issue, especially since many Chinese have roundly extolled the film's creative revolution. Take a closer look, and you'll find that it's a quieter, subtler revolution that is unsettling the Chinese government. In Avatar, many Americans see a film about exploitation, militarism, and environmental sustainability. Many Chinese, however, see a cautionary tale about a form of social and economic injustice all too common across their country. To many Chinese bloggers, Avatar is a fable about unscrupulous Chinese officials forcefully evicting residents in the name of local development.

"Land development with an iron fist" has become a volatile issue for Beijing. Driven by rapid urbanization and the absence of property rights, city residents are often uprooted from their homes with little or no compensation to clear the ground for construction of luxurious new high-rises. City enforcement officials, known as "chengguan," are often in cahoots with local developers, granting permits in exchange for kickbacks. Flanked by public security officers, they demand that residents vacate or face removal by force. At times, the ham-fisted moves lead to tragic outcomes, as when a woman in Chengdu set herself on fire rather than be evicted. In another incident, when an elderly man threatened to jump off the roof if he was forcibly removed, a chengguan quipped, "Go straight to the top floor. Don't choose the first or second."

Public outrage at this behavior has run rampant, fueled by the stubbornness of petty officials with unchecked power. In recent years, individuals managed to attract national attention to the issue via iconic and viral images of the "nail house" (usually a single dilapidated shack standing amid razed ground, sticking out like a nail). The photo above tells the story.

These houses remain intact because the owners refuse to budge and chose to fight against developers. On Chinese blogs, commentators immediately recognized the Pandoran aliens Na'vis' tree home as a nail house, and the army that descended upon it as chengguan. Dripping with sarcasm, bloggers' reaction to Avatar as a metaphor for average Chinese woes is unmistakable: "The humans actually failed to successfully evict and demolish [the aliens]? Truly embarrassing. Why didn't they send China's chengguan there sooner?" And "China's demolition crews must go sue old [James] Cameron, sue him for piracy/copyright infringement!"

With enormous numbers of comments like these moving across the web at lightning speed, Beijing, ever more preoccupied with public opinion on the Internet, grew nervous. Corruption is surely involved in many of the development deals, and it doesn't take much of a leap for the public to shift blame to the central government's inability to weed out corruption as promised. Though most of the ire is usually trained on local officials, the party leadership isn't going to take unnecessary risks. Few things arouse more fear in official circles than the loss of message control-and Avatar is just so popular. They decided they would need a wizened local sage to provide a little ancient wisdom.

Cue Confucius.