Q&A with Hao Wu, documentary filmmaker trying to understand China’s changes

Society & Culture

Hao Wu, a documentary filmmaker from China who has spent years living in the United States, explores the complex diversty of his home country through stereotype-breaking stories about individuals, from drama students putting on an American classic to millennials performing on the Internet.

Photo by David Sasaki

In 2011, Hao Wu gave up a successful career as a top executive in the Chinese Internet industry to pursue his love of documentary filmmaking — a passion that had, five years earlier, led to his detention by Chinese authorities for 140 days while he was shooting a film on China’s underground Christian churches, a topic that remains politically sensitive to this day.

That 2006 project never came to completion, but many of Wu’s others did, both before and after his encounter with Chinese state security. Another early work, Beijing or Bust (2005) followed six American-born Chinese living in Beijing. It was broadcast on more than 50 PBS channels in the United States. In The Road to Fame, Wu followed students at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama as they staged a production of the Broadway musical Fame in 2008, highlighting the zeitgeist of the first generation of children born under China’s one-child policy.

Wu’s interest in American and Chinese cultures reflects his own experience: He was born and raised in China and educated there, as well as in the United States, where he got two master’s degrees, one in microbiology and another in business.

While crafting documentaries, Wu moved in and out of the tech world. His career began in Silicon Valley, where he joined Excite.com during the heady days of the first dot-com bubble. In China, he went to Alibaba, then worked as country manager for TripAdvisor. He says he was “particularly passionate about the Internet and high tech because the industry allows you to be creative.”

For his next film project, Wu has been charting the online lives of China’s millennials. The People’s Republic of Desire delves into the Internet “showrooms” where performers offer entertainment and a personal connection in exchange for virtual gifts and tips from fans.

Wu’s work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Institute, among others. He served as a producer on the film Nowhere to Call Home and was a 2014 fellow with the New America Foundation.

In a conversation with SupChina, Wu discussed his sense of himself as “binational,” his views on the current political climate in his native country, and his hopes for his work and his two very young children.

SupChina: How would you describe your personal or professional connection to China, and why is it important to you at this point in your life?

Wu: I now live in the United States most of the time, and my partner and I have just had two babies.  When I’m filming, most of the time it’s in China, but right now I’m in the editing phase, and that’s here. I think most of the connection I feel with China, at least the deep down, emotional connection, is in stories and documentaries.

My life now is almost like 60 percent China and 40 percent here, and while I do care about what’s happening here, I still understand China much better than the U.S., and because my connection to that country is still stronger, I tell stories about China.

SupChina: In less than 40 years, China has transformed into the world’s second-largest economy and a major player on the global stage. What sort of changes have you experienced in your personal and professional activities that involve the country?

Wu: I’ve never really thought of this question, but the one thing that jumps to mind are the changes among people right now, with young people in their early twenties and late teens. When I was growing up, back then everyone worked really hard to save every penny, and now they don’t do that anymore. Especially with the kids who come to the U.S. — they are completely different. Partly it’s their financial situation and partly it’s their families taking care of them. As a Chinese national, I don’t feel like I really understand what they’re thinking, so that’s part of the interest that motivates me to make these documentaries.

SupChina: Is that something that concerns you, as you now have two very small children?

Wu: Definitely. As a Chinese family, obviously the grandparents are involved, so it’s not just the two parents. One issue we face is how Chinese they should be, how connected to China and Chinese culture they will be in the future. Second, I grew up with very little, just enough, but my kids are going to grow up with a lot of things, so how can we instill a hard work ethic in them?

SupChina: What challenges and opportunities do you see for you and your industry within China during the next five years?

Wu: Well, control has tightened, but as a documentary filmmaker in China, my current work in not politically really, really heavy. The reason why I make the films I do now is because I’m interested in young people, so I don’t foresee my work or myself personally as being heavily impacted. But in today’s current media environment, other subject matter could be affected.

SupChina: What must people comprehend about China to understand its decisions and behavior? And given how your work often focuses on things that people outside of the country might not know about, what should they understand about your work as it operates within China?

Wu: There are so many areas, such as the Internet youth culture, the wealth gap. I think people often might have a limited view. It’s as if your understanding of the United States came only from Hollywood films. The way I think about China, there are a diversity of positions that a lot of times get lost.

Think about the U.S. with the Democrats and Republicans, for example. We confront the differences, but we don’t seem to be able to understand each other, which baffles me. When the outside world thinks about China, they might think China is trying to take over the world, and they think about containing China and they stress about it.

The current state of the Communist Party says something about China’s direction, and the outcome of history. The reality is that the Chinese people evolved to the point of the Communist Party leading China, and to completely deny that is to deny China’s reality. It may be intimidating to the rest of the world, but China’s development has taken place for a reason and as a result of what happened before.

As for my work, I think what I’m trying to do with my films is to provide different voices and a view of something different from the stereotypes. There’s still a lot of diversity in China, and generational differences are huge. To me, the diversity within China is more interesting than the dichotomy of China versus the rest of the world.

SupChina: What must China understand about other countries, especially the United States, for the relationships to work well? In your field, what challenges have you seen in connecting China with the U.S., and how have you overcome them?

Wu: Wow, that’s a loaded question. Well, for Chinese, there is always this sense that because in China people in power have their hands in everything, especially in the media, that in other countries too the government must somehow be behind it. So they don’t really realize how the media and the political system are different, and that there are branches of government and they are separate. In China, because there’s still a patriarchal tradition and the very centralized leadership, there’s always a sense of the real power behind the scenes.

For my own work, I always complain that the market doesn’t like what it represents, or that people outside China like to read the same information and the same stories about China. But we all have biases. It’s only natural.

SupChina: How has and how does the Chinese government’s handling of the Internet — for example, blocking sites, removing content it finds problematic and pushing for each nation to run the Internet within its country as it sees fit — affect your work and your industry, and how do you think it will affect China in the future?

Wu: It has definitely impacted my work, because right now we collaborate with people in China. The Chinese government has been blocking Gmail and blocking access to Vimeo and Wikipedia, so when I travel there it becomes really, really difficult for me to collaborate with people outside China. And right now, even when I’m here and I want to collaborate with people in China, it’s also difficult, because we can’t share files through, for example, Dropbox. We have to ship the drives over.

That to me is really difficult, though I kind of understand why it’s happening. Right now China is going through some serious changes and facing challenges, and the government wants to control as much as possible to make sure there is no major disruption to the status quo. But now even people in business are objecting to this and its impact on innovation within China. It’s a power play, but it’s definitely detrimental to the other goals of what they want to achieve in terms of innovation.

When Xi Jinping first came into power, we were very optimistic, especially since the later Hu Jintao years saw some tightening of controls. But now nothing has been done, and it’s hard to get anything done. The priority is really about control and power rather than about reform and opening up.

SupChina: What do media outlets get wrong in their telling of the country’s story?

Wu: Media tend to look at China through their own lens in terms of human rights and what has been done wrong, but tend to miss a lot of the things that have been done right since the 1980s. I grew up with little in terms of material wealth, but I kind of grew up with China, and I don’t think the media appreciates the way China has developed, the progress made. I think it’s really about understanding the development, where China came from.

SupChina: How would you describe China’s attitude toward civil rights? How does it affect the country’s relationship with other nations, how does it influence your work and how do you think that attitude might change, if at all?

Wu: I don’t think the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] can keep going in the same direction as the current political climate. In time, China will become more democratic. China has had a patriarchal background for a long time — first under the emperors, then the Republic of China, and then the Communist Party came in. We still see a lot of people who want to follow the leader, and a lot of leaders who just want to be followed.

I think the change will come — along with a change in perspective and the way of thinking — that maybe it’s not necessary to rely on one authority, or to worship power, and then there will be more space for democracy. But even in a mature democracy, the processes take time; you see what happens in America now. But I’m optimistic for China, though it’s getting harder.

SupChina: What personal and professional goals do you have for the next five years that intersect with China, and what role does the country play in those objectives?

Wu: I’d like to think I’m binational now. In terms of work and documentaries, the question is how to make a living making documentary films, and how to make films about China that are interesting and thought=provoking, where the audience can see it and get a different perspective.

My last film, about young people in China doing an American musical, did well, but it didn’t do spectacularly. It had distribution in over 10 countries, and was broadcast in China and made available locally online through various streaming services. It has had about 2 million views across platforms, which is a muted response for China. I think the next film may be more interesting to Chinese people.

SupChina: What is a distinctively Chinese idea that will benefit the world in the next five years?

Wu: One thing I really treasure about being Chinese: hard work. Go to China and look at how hard people are working to make better lives for themselves. Because we don’t have religion in China, we have to live through our offspring, and work hard for them. It’s like investing in the infrastructure. And the focus on education and sacrificing for that, really putting your heart into it. I truly think that’s something that other people can benefit from.

SupChina: What is your favorite Chinese movie?

Wu: Oh, Farewell My Concubine. And the Chinese animation Da Nao Tian Gong — basically the Monkey King story, from before the Cultural Revolution. Kids in my generation or growing up in the 1980s all know that one. And a very recent film, Black Coal, Thin Ice. I highly recommend that one.