Why China’s “Top Gun” Video is Better Than Tom Cruise’s Movie

I will
make an unpatriotic confession. I like the Chinese version of “Top Gun” better.
Or more specifically, a short Chinese navy video that resembles the 1986
Hollywood hit, for which a sequel is underway. Well, almost resembles.

smirking Tom Cruise. No fake love story (and no Kelly McGillis) to distract
what everyone really came to see, which was the cool F-14 Tomcats zooming and
booming through the skies. And at almost six minutes instead of almost two
hours for the American version, it’s a lot quicker to watch.

that the Chinese video is for entertainment: it’s strictly propaganda (though
the same could be said for the original Top Gun, to which the Navy happily
contributed F-14s for the ultimate recruiting tool and budget-justifier).

Chinese video was filmed during People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) exercises
in the South China Sea earlier this year. It features an excellent sound track
that conveys just the right amount of power and purpose.

surprisingly, the star of the show is the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft
carrier. The Liaoning is actually an ex-Soviet carrier laid down in the 1980s
and never completed, until China bought and refurbished the rusting hulk. But
in this video, it looks as awesome as an American Ford-class carrier, even
though it’s half the size. Filmed bow-on and steaming at the head of a column, and
flanked by four escorts on either side, it looks as imposing an an American
carrier battle group, even though it wouldn’t last half a minute against a
Ford- or Nimitz-class vessel.

Cue in
the J-15 fighters shown launching from the ski-jump deck of the Liaoning and
then maneuvering gracefully over the Pacific. There is the obligatory footage
of missiles rising from surface ships atop pillars of fire, torpedoes splashing
into the water, and the buzz of rapid-fire air defense cannon.

hardware in itself is nothing we haven’t seen before in many a navy’s
propaganda video. But what’s most interesting about China’s “Top Gun” is the
image that it seeks to project. Despite all the weapons on display, there are
only a couple of shots of missiles being fired, and no explosions or targets
being hit. The theme is neither belligerent nor triumphant, nor even
exhilarating like the Hollywood “Top Gun.”

are the shots of the Liaoning’s deck crew, clad in the various colors of their
job, trotting to their stations in disciplined, perfectly aligned order. The
ships and aircraft look well-maintained, majestically moving in formation. The
word that best conveys this image is “professional.”

course, the movie glosses over the cracks in the Chinese naval war machine. The
J-15s are crashing so often that China is scrambling to find a replacement. The
Liaoning may look like a nuclear-powered supercarrier, but it’s a catapult-less
carrier that limits the performance of the aircraft it can carry compared to
those on catapult-launch American ships. Meanwhile, the Chinese military still
suffers so much from corruption that the civilian government has to issue
warnings and conduct purges.

it was not that long ago that China was considered a land power, with an immense
army and a bigger manpower pool that conjured images of human wave attacks. Now
China is building a fleet of aircraft carriers, possibly with electromagnetic
catapults similar to the most advanced American carriers.

navy in this video appeared high-tech, professional, a real navy rather than a
mere coastal defense force. Whether the video was aimed at foreign rivals or
the Chinese public, the message was clear: China’s navy is a force to be
reckoned with.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the
National Interest . He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.