Superman. Mr. Bean. The Joker. Jack Ma. Spongebob Squarepants.
These icons of pop culture are the latest figures to be drawn into the bizarre world of Chinese online propaganda.
Today (April 15) is China’s first-ever National Security Education Day, a new “holiday” meant to publicize the importance of safeguarding state secrets, and by extension, promote the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party with regard to information security and human rights.
To mark the occasion, the ministry of state security has produced a series of cartoon videos that mix abundant pop culture references with government sermonizing.
Using Hollywood movie characters like James Bond, the five videos explain two laws that lay out the party’s stance on national security: the Counter-Espionage Law and the National Security Law (passed in November 2014 and July 2015, respectively).
They get very bizarre, very quickly.
In one episode explaining the National Security Law, the narrator encourages citizens to identify foreign spies in their daily lives. “Besides special forces, the FBI, and the CIA, you also might think of Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, and Captain America [as spies],” the narrator says. “But actually, even in foreign countries, espionage is just a small part of national security. Those who safeguard [their country’s] national security [against China] are not men with magic powers and chest muscles,” he adds. Images of the words “Unemployed” or “Laid off” then appear above crying superheroes (video in Chinese)—implying that only disgruntled citizens or foreigners would upset national security.
Another video instructs ordinary citizens to take action against behavior that threatens national security. A baby with large biceps photographs the Joker committing a crime and reports him to officials (video in Chinese), who promptly put him in jail. “If you discover there are elements working to undermine national security, immediately report to the relevant authorities and provide evidence,” the narrator says.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish if something is intended to be funny or serious. In one video, the narrator explains how newer laws replace older ones. Within 30 seconds (video in Chinese) it references Colin Firth’s character in Kingsman: The Secret Service and modern-day software lingo:
“[Espionage devices] have become so advanced—there are umbrellas that are not easy to carry, but can be used as a crutch,” the narrator explains, as Firth appears in background, firing bullets from an umbrella. “But our [old] national security law was still the same as it was 20 years ago. In November 2014, after installing patches, checking for bugs, and performing other rigorous tests, the new, updated Counter-Espionage Law finally hit the app store.”
More cultural references fill the videos. In one of them, the narrator shouts a catchphrase from the video game World of Warcraft. In another, he encourages citizens to be like Jack Ma and thrust a positive global spotlight on China. Even Adolf Hitler makes a brief cameo—he gets punched by a giant boxing glove.
The videos, like the laws themselves, don’t do much to describe what “national security” or “espionage” entail specifically. That’s by design. The Chinese government will often justify its more controversial actions on the grounds that it is merely protecting national security. When Chinese authorities detained Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin earlier this year, officials accused him of “funding criminal activities harmful to China’s national security.”
Meanwhile, last year the Chinese government reportedly encouraged foreign internet companies to pledge they would store Chinese user data in China, all in the name of national security (paywall). Authorities also listed this practice as part of a draft counter-terrorism law, but it was dropped from a revised version that ultimately passed last December.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV appears to be one of the first news outlets to show the cartoons. Under one of its Weibo posts (link in Chinese) about the cartoons, some bloggers described the videos as “so cute,” and hoped for more such government propaganda. One commenter praised the series as being “straight, easy to understand, and close to people.”
Others have reacted to the videos with more skepticism: ”I want to file a report! According to some foreign papers, many spies are now transferring our nation’s assets to other countries,” one blogger wrote, referring to Chinese leaders’ involvement in the “Panama Papers” scandal.