Fair warning, loyal cinema fans who haven’t yet read the book: SPOILERS ABOUND BELOW.
Author Suzanne Collins has pretty well spelled out that Panem, the fictional setting of her Hunger Games novels-turned-blockbusters, is a post-apocalyptic North America. And while penning the stories might make her an authority on these matters, a little between-the-lines reading makes it shockingly clear that whatever her intentions, she actually wrote a brilliantly acute critique of modern China.
With a startling amount of nuance and specificity, Panem and The Hunger Games trilogy correlate with China so perfectly, it’s hard to believe she didn’t write it that way intentionally. So read on—and reread or rewatch the movies—and see how one of Harry Potter’s leading literary rivals turns out to be a poorly camouflaged Chinese doppelganger.
10. China Already Has Districts
One of the central features of Collins’ Hunger Games universe is the 12 (or 13—but more on that later) Districts, distinct in everything from the food they eat to their peculiar traditions and especially the industries through which they support Panem and the governing Capitol.
While the idea is that America, following a civil war, was divided into these dozen districts, it actually much more closely reflects China’s current and historical makeup. As you may already know, “Chinese” is neither a language nor an ethnicity, but rather an externally imposed label covering a huge variety of rich cultures, histories, languages and traditions that persist to this day, reflective of the numerous tribes and various kingdoms that have come and gone throughout the massive region today known as China.
And as for the signature cuisines and dishes of the various Districts—well, that also exists in China, and has for centuries. Americans may get fussy over whether barbecue is best prepared with a dry rub or smothered with a tangy-sweet brown sauce, but China’s culinary traditions are unmistakably regional and diverse.
Likewise, individual cities are even known for the particular output and specialization of their factories and industry. One enterprising factory owner with an overseas contract will routinely see a former employee quit, just to set up sweatshop across the street providing the same widgets and goods using the same sort of machinery—and supplied with workers migrating from impoverished agrarian regions who missed the modernization bus. Just as the Districts of Panem are virtually foreign to one another’s citizens, so are the various regions of China all but different nations compared to one another.
9. Beijing is The Capital
Panem is ruthlessly governed by an authoritarian regime in The Capitol, recognizable to readers as Denver, Colorado. But the climax of the final book/movie, in which the protagonists must navigate a labyrinthine network of booby traps and confounding urban planning to reach the true government palace, feels a lot more like The Forbidden City, a massive fortress-like series of walls, courtyards, and enclaves smack in the middle of China’s actual capital, Beijing.
By design, this ancient mega structure combines opulence with defensive infrastructure, both luxurious and imposing, exactly as The Capitol is presented in the final chapters of the stories. But the similarities aren’t limited to a single building.
Both The Capitol and real-life Beijing are disproportionately large, vibrant, cultural centers and trendsetters, housing an authoritarian government and replete with architecture, extravagance, and big city self-importance that simply can’t be matched by any other city in the nation.
8. The 2008 Olympics
Speaking of opulence, Beijing played host to the single-most expensive, over-the-top Olympic games and ceremonies in history, dropping over $42 million in an effort to present a visage of power, wealth, and status to the world—which is also the explicit purpose of the titular Hunger Games: an annual demonstration of intimidation and unmatchable spectacle. Rather than using that wealth and influence to establish social programs, improve access to technology, economic opportunity, or even basic services, Beijing, like The Capitol, reinvested in its own image on the biggest scale possible.
Hell, even the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics present an uncanny similarity to how the movie version of Catching Fire visualized the arrival of the Tributes for what was to be the 75th Hunger Games.
And just as Gale lamented the compulsory viewership of the Hunger Games, many Beijingers found themselves less than enthused about hosting the Olympic games when China’s government forcibly relocated some 1.5 million inhabitants of the city to make room for the event.
One of the more perplexing features of the citizens of Panem in the books and movies is their willingness to tolerate the oppressive government and systemic abuse they suffer.
China, however, is the home to an ancient code of rules and ethics bordering on a religion known as Confucianism. While the influence of Confucius can be seen well beyond China, in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, Confucius himself lived in the heart of China, and used his role as a royal adviser to instruct rulers and, by extension, the entire nation according to his standards of conduct. Key among these was the idea of obedience, deference to authority, and every individual recognizing his or her role and relative rank in society.
In essence, one of China’s most important cultural touchstones and farthest-reaching global influence has been the notion that the rule of a central authority is absolute, and violating that norm is dishonorable and the source of disharmony on earth. And, far from being viewed as an outdated relic of history, Confucianism continues to enjoy great support and relevance among Chinese citizens today.
In The Hunger Games stories, the people are clearly dissatisfied with their lot, but they can’t bring themselves to fight back against their oppression until they have a new, seemingly charismatic figure behind which they can rally and derive some semblance of empowerment and authority.
6. The Group Over The Individual
Confucian tradition not only explains why an entire nation would be complacent in the face of an ineffective, barbaric, oppressive government, it provides the context for the central feature of The Hunger Games stories: the games themselves.
What could compel two-dozen children to obediently participate in a charade that ultimately sees them fight to the death until only one, deeply traumatized victor remains? They are promised, for their trouble, a bounty of food and basic goods delivered to their home district, should they manage to gladiate their way through their peers.
China’s ancient principles also dictate that the individual—one person’s needs, wants, emotions, and identity—is subordinate to the needs of society or the larger group. This Spock-like mentality is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the hyper-individualist Westerner trying to understand China, and it helps clarify why, for 75 years, the Tributes of the Hunger Games have apparently played along with the sadism and done their best to chop each other to pieces on television without so much as a seemingly appropriate hunger strike or even the odd John Lennon song.
When you see yourself as a servant to society at large, you don’t fight the system, you try to make it work for whatever group whose membership includes you—especially when your parents and siblings are counting on you. That would also explain why, when Katniss suddenly doesn’t play by the rules, it upends the entire system and leads to a national revolution.
5. The One Child Policy
From 1979 to 2016 (the policy will officially end next year), the Chinese government attempted to control the growth of its billions-strong population through a rule that mandated that couples (with some exceptions) could only have one child. In a society that values males significantly over females, having a baby girl was no longer a simple matter of rigging up the stirrups and trying again.
Instead, decades of forced abortions, infanticide, and sex trafficking created a disproportionately male (and sad, lonely, and spoiled) population that eventually forced the government to reverse course and allow couples multiple children. So either families aborted or otherwise disposed of infant girls in order to use their One Child quota to have male offspring, or government officials on the watch for a baby bump would compel them make do with their firstborn, female or otherwise.
While this could hardly condition a society to enthusiastically cheer for the violent deaths of their teenagers in a nationally broadcast bloodbath, it is certainly closer in context to the operation and results of the Hunger Games.
It also better explains why, on the eve of the 75th Hunger Games, Peeta’s last-ditch effort to save Katniss by claiming she is pregnant ignites some mild outrage, but ultimately doesn’t get her a pass. Neither the novels nor the films even suggests that a basic pregnancy test was administered before Katniss got shunted back into the arena.
4. Taiwan is District 13
Over the course of the series, District 13 goes from a haunting reminder of the power of The Capitol, to a rumor, to a living, thriving District and major player in the revolution, whose own leadership attempts to overthrow The Capitol and retake Panem at large from the ruling regime.
Funny story—that is exactly what Taiwan’s government originally planned on doing.
During World War II, rival factions in China united to drive out the occupying Japanese. When they succeeded, they resumed their conflict in earnest, with Mao’s Communist forces eventually defeating Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, who in turn fled to Taiwan and set up—in their view—a government in exile. Both the mainland Communists and Taiwanese Nationalists saw themselves as the legitimate and rightful government of all of China. America, ever fearful of the dirty red Commies, threw its support behind Taiwan with heaps of military hardware and the tacit assurance that, if Mainland China initiated conflict, the U.S. would have Taiwan’s back—with extreme prejudice.
Over time, of course, the impracticality of Taiwan’s political ambitions cooled their plans, and they focused more on domestic development on the island than retaking the homeland. Add in America’s diplomatic switcheroo in 1979, in which the Mainland government, rather than Taiwan, was viewed as the legitimate Chinese authority, and you get the current state of affairs: a tenuous, semi-official agree-to-disagree One China Policy, governed by two systems: communism on the mainland, and democracy on Taiwan.
Just as The Capitol and District 13 agreed not to destroy each other entirely, allowing The Capitol to save face and District 13 to carry on in its own, semi-independent way, Mainland China and Taiwan do their best to dance around the issue of just what their relationship—and risk of open war—is.
3. China Might Actually Nuke Itself
Even though America doesn’t openly contest the One China Policy, it has continued to retail military hardware on the island and quietly dissuade the Mainland from initiating any aggression against Taiwan. In the event of open conflict, China could feasibly launch a nuclear strike against Taiwan—which, according to Beijing’s standards, would constitute a domestic nuclear strike, aka a nuclear civil war; exactly what Panem’s citizens say happened in the years before the Hunger Games.
Because of this, one of the key threats The Capitol holds over the heads of the Districts is that it has all the nukes, and no one could possibly bring a viable military challenge to its might. As the endless parade of NRA spokesmen and Second Amendment enthusiasts have repeatedly assured us, guns are an American value never to be surrendered or infringed upon.
So how does all the firepower end up in Denver in The Hunger Games universe?
It doesn’t—it’s in Taiwan.
If America could be convinced not to intervene in such a civil affair (and nukes make a compelling argument), the Mainland already has some 30 years of experience shutting out the rest of the world and doing its own thing, leaving Taiwan sitting on a pile of “Made in America” munitions while Beijing sets up cameras in trees and hosts tryouts for blue-haired commentators. If and when the revolution comes, it will ultimately come from outside the mainland—where all the weaponry is.
2. Television is Packed With Propaganda
The Districts of Panem aren’t completely without the hallmarks of modernity; everyone has access to what are essentially televisions, which broadcast the annual Games along with a bevy of informational and entertaining content.
Except all that content is actually just propaganda—usually made without any effort to conceal that fact—churned out and strictly controlled by The Capitol to indoctrinate and intimidate in equal measure. China has also learned to worship the glowing box, and, much like The Capitol, Beijing authorities have honed their skills in managing and manufacturing content with a decidedly propagandist bent.
At any given time, there is a war movie on at least one channel on Chinese public television—specifically, a movie about China’s experiences as a nation during the period we know as World War II, which falls into one of two categories: vilifying the monstrous Japanese occupation of China, or vindicating the glorious Communist uprising that swept the nation and turned it into the wealthy, globally revered superpower China is today.
One of the central plots of the final book (and two movies) in The Hunger Games series involves the opposing cadres disseminating competing propaganda messages in an effort to sway the revolutionary tide. They are transparent about the fact that it is propaganda (they call the televised bits “propos”), and that it is central to their overall strategies in winning the looming war.
China also makes no bones about its propagandist intent: it even has an official Central Propaganda Department (an arm of the Communist Party) to support and balance government efforts to control the internet, all public broadcasting, and even international English media.
1. The Hunger Games Already Happened…in China
And it was called The Great Leap Forward. Over the course of roughly four years (1958-1962) that were supposed to mark China’s transition to a fully modern world power, somewhere between 20 and 45 million Chinese citizens died, of causes ranging from starvation (which was the big one) to being tortured to death by secret police. To this day, estimates of the total casualties vary greatly, because the official party line on the tragedy is one mostly of denial, or attributing any food shortages to the weather.
Granted, The Hunger Games only manage to ice children in groups of 23, depending on the year and Games, but in a country with something close to a fifth of the global population, everything happens on a grander scale.
Much like the Districts are responsible for providing for The Capitol through production in their various industries, Mao decided to mobilize the countryside to out-smelt Britain and produce record-setting quantities of steel. So farmers with zero experience in ironworks set up backyard furnaces in every village and every hovel to melt down whatever they decided was made of metal.
Simultaneously, infrastructure projects were undertaken to make China’s farming communes more productive than ever before. The intense pressure to perform—along with hyperbolic propaganda touting the performance of various provinces—drove the various communes and regions to exaggerate their own output, which in turn led to the government hoarding more and more food on the assumption that there was just so much to go around, they could afford to keep increasing quotas and adding to the surplus and exports.
Of course, they didn’t really have the steel or the food, so people died in droves of starvation—if they could escape the roving cadres looking for those who weren’t Communist enough and threatened to bring the whole mood down.
Curiously, whenever the Tributes visit The Capitol, they are overwhelmed by the contract with their own Districts, where people are starving and subsisting on stone soup while residents of The Capitol have more food than they can physically consume. And anyone who complains can expect a visit from Peacekeepers, who pretty much flog or execute every would-be Oliver Twist asking for some more, please.