The National Interest

Sharp Power and Stock Villains

The Chinese have long paid close attention to the narratives being conveyed by popular culture. It’s about time we did the same.

Former Visiting Fellow
A man passes a military propaganda poster in Shanghai on March 5, 2017. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man passes a military propaganda poster in Shanghai on March 5, 2017. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

p(firstLetter). It’s hard to coin a new term, but the National Endowment for Democracy did just that in a report released two years ago. Co-authored by Chris Walker and Jessica Ludwig of NED, along with four regional experts, “Sharp Power and Rising Authoritarian Influence” makes a compelling case that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China have turned away from “soft power,” which works through “attraction and persuasion,” and toward “sharp power,” which “pierces, penetrates, or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries.”

The report offers a case-by-case analysis of how Russian and Chinese sharp power is being used to undermine four fragile democracies: Argentina, Peru, Poland, and Slovakia. It also clarifies some key differences between the two regimes. Russia is mainly a spoiler: Instead of trying “to convince the world that [its] autocratic system [is] appealing in its own right,” it seeks “to level the playing field largely by dragging down its democratic adversaries.” China is more ambitious: It strives to expand its economic and political power by engaging in “aggressive investment, co-optation, and dishonest salesmanship,” while at the same time “masking its policies and suppressing . . . any voices beyond China’s borders that are critical.”

Historians may someday regard 2017 as a turning point in the world’s awareness of sharp power wielded to exploit what the NED report calls the “glaring asymmetry” between free and unfree, open and closed. In the United States, the wake-up call was the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. An even louder wake-up call was heard in New Zealand and Australia, where the “United Front” operations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have reached deeply into a wide range of institutions, from political parties to media, corporations to universities.

The warning signs have been sounded for a while, not least by Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand scholar who has spent years researching internal and external Chinese propaganda (euphemistically translated as “publicity”) and “thought work” (a phrase that does not lend itself to euphemism). An example of her work is “Magic Weapons,” a sobering monograph written in 2017 that summarizes her research as a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

In Australia, the cudgels were taken up in 2015 and 2016 by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and the office of the Prime Minister, which launched inquiries into Chinese influence operations; and by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Sydney Morning Herald, which did major investigative reporting on the same topic. Then a pair of savvy Australian political reporters, Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlman, published two best-selling novels with subplots about Chinese influence at the highest levels of government.1 And last but not least, the novels were adapted for a six-part TV series called Secret City, which premiered on Australia’s Foxtel network in June 2016 and is now available on Netflix.

Secret City was a hit for three reasons: because it has a terrific cast; because it makes the capital city of Canberra look squeaky-clean, stylish, and ominous all at once; and because it features Chinese agents of influence as the villains. This third reason is the most important, because no matter how timely and relevant it might be to produce a political thriller about Chinese sharp power, it almost never happens. After all, what self-respecting media conglomerate would sacrifice access to a potential market of 1.4 billion viewers for the sake of mere timeliness and relevance?

This question is rarely asked, because the vast majority of Western analysts, strategists, and policymakers concerned with Chinese sharp power do not think about its use in connection to popular culture. For many of these people, paying attention to popular culture is either infra dig or a waste of time. For others, the products of the entertainment industry are best understood as soft power, lucrative exports whose impact on audiences is generally benign, and whose importance to geopolitics is negligible.

This is not the case in China, needless to say. From its earliest days the CCP has embraced Lenin’s 1925 dictum that “of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema.” Unlike their counterparts in liberal democracies, Chinese analysts, strategists, and policy-makers pay extremely close attention to the narratives being purveyed to the masses by popular culture. Under the “core leadership” of Xi Jinping, the correct “guidance” of the newly consolidated media, publishing, and cultural industries of China is an urgent priority. Those slated to be brought into “alignment” with the “China Dream” include not just the apparatchiki who work in the domestic entertainment industry but their more or less useful counterparts overseas—especially in the world’s biggest Dream Factory across the Pacific.

In November the New York Times ran a brief article sketching the recent history of Chinese influence in Hollywood. These efforts include changes in content dictated by the censors in Beijing; major financing of Hollywood films; investments in and outright purchases of studios and theater chains; and co-productions of blockbuster films combining Hollywood excitement with positive messages about Chinese culture and beneficence. The Times also noted that between 1997 and 2013, the average number of top-grossing Hollywood movies co-financed by China was 12 out of 100. Between 2014 and 2018 that number rose to 41. But then the relationship changed, because, as the Times continues,

The 2016 film The Great Wall, a $150 million China-Hollywood co-production starring Matt Damon, was China’s highest-profile attempt to make a crossover hit. It was, by most measures, an international flop. Since then, China has stepped away from the big-budget co-production model, focusing instead on making features that cater to its large and still-expanding domestic market. To do that, it has enlisted Hollywood talent—producers, technical experts and even top celebrities. But they have had to walk a fine line.

Not surprisingly, some Hollywood figures have crossed that line and begun taking all their cues from the Party. In a previous column I mentioned Wolf Warrior 2, an action film released in the summer of 2017 that has to date grossed over $870 million, 99 percent of it in China. This makes it the most profitable film ever shown in China, and the second-most profitable film ever shown in a single market. (Only Star Wars: The Force Awakens earned more, with $936.7 million in North America.) That’s pretty stunning for a film whose main purpose is to stoke nationalist pride in China as the world’s rising power and contempt for America as the declining one. The message is not subtle: a band of Chinese soldiers behaves with courage, honor, and generosity in a place called “Africa,” while the Americans they meet behave with cowardice, dishonor, and greed.

In keeping with this message, Wu Jung, the Chinese-born writer/director/star of Wolf Warrior 2, boasts openly of having proved that China can make an action flick as exciting as any made in Hollywood. This boast rings a little hollow, given how heavily Wu relied on imported American talent. The chief villain, a sadistic mercenary called Big Daddy, is played by Frank Grillo, one of many journeymen performers in the Hollywood action genre; the filmmakers also consulted the Russo Brothers, part of the Marvel Studios roster, and brought on the renowned stunt team of Sam Hargrave to choreograph the film’s action sequences.

Not all of China’s imported talent is American. Operation Red Sea (2018), the next action flick to strike gold at the Chinese box office, was directed by Dante Lam, one of several Hong Kong directors to seize their chance on the mainland, where the budgets for jingoistic movies are very generous.

Operation Red Sea is an ultra-violent fantasy version of the Chinese navy’s 2015 evacuation of several hundred Chinese and non-Chinese civilians from war-torn Yemen. I say “fantasy” because it features not just a fake special-ops unit (the “Dragon Commandos” do not exist) but also a fake war (the real operation consisted of three Chinese navy vessels sailing into Aden, picking up the evacuees, and ferrying them to safety in Djibouti). Another word might be “propaganda,” because after two solid hours of graphic bloodletting, Operation Red Sea closes with uplifting music, blue sky and sea, and the glorious sight of the homeward bound fleet plying the South China Sea. Then comes the final scene: an encounter with a U.S. Navy patrol. The Chinese commander radios: “Attention! This is the Chinese navy! You’re about to enter Chinese waters! Please turn around immediately!“ As the Yanks retreat, the music swells and a Chinese passport appears on the screen with this superimposed message:

Citizen of the People’s Republic of China:

Whenever you are in danger overseas,

don’t give up!

Please remember:

Behind you

stands the powerful motherland!

As an American, I am in no position to criticize the Chinese film industry for waving the flag and showcasing a ton of military hardware. Some of the busiest places in Hollywood are the liaison offices of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. But I do find it troubling that China has been finding it so easy to lure talented people from Hollywood, Hong Kong, and other places long accustomed to artistic freedom, into a system of consolidated state power that, instead of paying too little attention to the narratives being conveyed by popular culture, pays far too much.

Is Australia the exception? It might appear so, given the contrast between Hollywood’s collective kowtowing and the bold relief of Secret City’s Season 1. Unfortunately, there is no such bold relief in Season 2, which debuted on Netflix earlier this month. According to a puff piece in the Canberra Times, this second season picks up where the first left off, with the heroine, an investigative journalist named Harriet, being released from prison, where she was sent at the end of Season 1 for publishing classified material. No longer welcome at the newspaper where she once worked, Harriet takes a new job as media advisor to a maverick politician. But her true calling being sleuthing, she is immediately drawn into a new and dangerous investigation of a mysterious drone strike, a murdered Foreign Minister, and other shadowy events.

Here is where Season 2 does not pick up where Season 1 left off. Instead of continuing the storyline about Chinese sharp power, it reverts to the usual suspects—the Yanks, up to their usual mischief of starting new wars in order to test their latest weapons. The novels and news reports that inspired the first season have disappeared from the credits, along with their authors. And when the Canberra Times asked the producers about their inspiration for the new season, one of them said, “One day as we were working on ideas for the second series of Secret City, we watched President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address. His warning to the world, now even more relevant than ever, gave us the unsettling story we were looking for.”

Ike’s speech contained a warning about the need for vigilant oversight of what he called “the military-industrial complex.” That gave rise to one of Hollywood’s favorite stock villains: the gimlet-eyed defense contractor willing to blow away half the women and children in remote places like North Waziristan, if that’s what it takes to increase his profits. This villain is also a favorite among foreign producers whose view of the world includes a healthy (or not so healthy) strain of anti-Americanism.

So when Harriet cracks the case in Season 2, this stock villain is rolled to center stage, along with the obligatory African-American senior officer whose stony expression is even stonier than that of his white comrades. And in case we didn’t get the message, the penultimate scene is of Ike himself, delivering that same speech on the computer screen of the peace-loving Prime Minister, who has just fallen on his political sword to save Australia from getting dragged into a trumped-up war between America and Pakistan.

Far be it from me to suggest that Ike’s warning is out of date. The American military-industrial complex is always in need of vigilant oversight. But to judge by the latest headlines about Chinese penetration of U.S. naval contractors and wholesale theft of national security secrets, at least some of that vigilance needs to be directed outward, toward those who seek to erode the foundations of our democratic freedoms. By dramatizing this need, by daring to enter these forbidden waters, the first season of Secret City comes alive with the spark, the jolt, the frisson of real danger and hope. In the second season, which returns to the safe harbor of entertainment clichés, that spark has been extinguished.

It might be worth asking who extinguished it—and why.