16 February 2019
In a cartoon used in a national security education campaign in mainland China, a female government employee dates a foreign academic who turns out to be a spy. Photo: Xinhua
In a cartoon used in a national security education campaign in mainland China, a female government employee dates a foreign academic who turns out to be a spy. Photo: Xinhua

Superheroes and Chinese spies

The Chinese Communist Party’s first ever National Security Education Day has come and gone. Like most of the party’s awareness campaigns, it was largely ignored, and left behind is a collection of puzzling, delusional, almost farcical propaganda materials.

Chief among the laughable items is a comic poster titled Dangerous Love.

In 14 frames, a young, beautiful, brown-haired female Chinese state employee attends a dinner party, is pursued by the handsome foreign host, falls in love, leaks copies of presumably confidential policy documents to him, becomes puzzled by his mysterious disappearance and is arrested by the police for aiding a foreign spy.

In this tale, it doesn’t take much to convince Xiao Li, the victim and our protagonist, to betray her duty and commit treason. David, the bookish foreign academic and dinner party host, merely asks, “My dear, is there a need to keep secrets from me?”

In two final frames, friendly police officers regurgitate the legalese that pertains to Xiao Li’s circumstances, but not before placing her in handcuffs and lecturing her as tears roll forth.

Dangerous Love appeared in Beijing’s Xicheng district, a financial center that is also home to many foreigners who work in the Chinese capital.

In a video released online, a narrator says, “Recently, [China’s] security sector has worked hard to arrest a group of strange people who clamored to be our friends, including James Bond, Tom Cruise, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jason Bourne and Mr. Bean!”

Over an old-timey staccato musical score, the narrator walks us through how the CCP has revised and updated its Counter-Espionage Law, as well as the legal powers of security officials on counter-espionage assignments.

Another episode features Marvel and DC Comics superheroes and villains and demands that Chinese citizens identify potential foreign spies who may have infiltrated their lives.

For a government that constantly refers to the toxic and hostile foreign influence that the West projects, the CCP’s propaganda team seems perfectly comfortable using western pop culture imagery in its productions.

The paranoia doesn’t stop there.

As the film Zootopia climbed the box office ladder in China to become the highest-grossing animation ever shown in the country, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said it promoted American values through “invisible propaganda”.

In particular, the author of the opinion piece said, “Hollywood has long been an effective propaganda machine for the US.”

It continued to note that a climactic battle in the 2013 film Pacific Rim took place in the South China Sea, which was a sign of America’s geopolitical strategy to pivot toward Asia.

Goofy statements from China’s party media are commonplace, but a much more serious case is receiving public attention.

On April 19, in a Chengdu courtroom, a man named Huang Yu (黄宇) was sentenced to death.

China Central Television highlighted his case: Huang was a computer scientist working for the CCP and leaked more than 150,000 classified documents to an unspecified foreign intelligence agency in exchange for more than US$700,000. 

As Huang faces his final days, his wife and brother-in-law also received sentences — not the death penalty, but five and three years in prison, respectively.

The recent blitz of opinion pieces, posters, videos and slicker productions may be heavy-handed, but the insinuations contained within reflect the CCP’s worldview — a constant existential crisis fueled by the worry that external forces wish to bring about its downfall.

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EJ Insight contributor

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