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From red-haired foreigners to Soviet Grandpas—a look at Chinese cartoons about spies

katebelletje/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Who you lookin’ at?
By Josh Horwitz
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

China routinely warns its citizens about the dangers of spies, foreigners—and foreign spies—with media reports about captured operatives, or directives informing people how to spot them. Now, a recent propaganda initiative on the subject has arrived, featuring bright colors, speech bubbles, and a riveting storyline of romance.

Last week, as part of China’s first-ever National Security Education Day, Beijing district government officials hung posters around the residential community of Xicheng warning women not to date foreigners. The posters featured a 16-panel comic telling the story of a government employee who falls for a red-haired foreigner claiming to be an academic.

China Law Translate
“My name is David and I’m a visiting scholar researching issues about China. I’m really interested in chatting with all of you,” one of the comic panels reads, in a translation by China Law Translate.
China Law Translate
“Everybody please introduce yourself and say a little something about your work. Let’s start with this pretty lady.”

The female employee and the academic begin dating. As they spend time together, the scholar persistently asks for “internal references” from the woman’s job, but when she complies, he disappears. Officials from China’s Ministry of State Security later tell her she was dating an overseas spy.

“Dear, do you still need to keep secrets from me?” asks David, a spy posing as a foreign academic. “I just want to use them for an article, let me take a look.”
China Law Translate
-“Here’s a copy, when you’re done please give it back to me.” -“Relax, sweetheart.”
China Law Translate
“What happened? David hasn’t called me recently, and his phone is always off.”
China Law Translate
“David is an overseas spy in China to steal political and military information, and we have already captured him. Did you provide him with these ‘internal references?’”

Meanwhile, in a series of viral videos released last week, China’s Ministry of State Security depicted popular Western comic book figures like The Joker and Wonder Woman as foreign spies attempting to obtain state secrets. “If you discover there are elements working to undermine national security, immediately report them to the relevant authorities and provide evidence,” states the narrator.

Chinese national security officers take on The Joker and other villains.

These cartoon warnings are a throwback to an earlier era. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, the target of propaganda campaigns was more often “counterrevolutionaries”—Chinese citizens who failed to display enough loyalty to Mao or the party, even if their only offence was coming from a wealthy family. People were encouraged to report friends, family members, and acquaintances for perceived infractions against Maoist ideology.

Cartoon propaganda was used to support the cause. As outlined by ChinaSmackXiao Hong’s Struggle Against Dear Grandpa, a comic book from the early seventies released by Shanghai Peoples’ Publishing House, tells the story of a young girl who learns her father’s uncle (referred to as “grandfather”) is actually a spy for the Soviet Union. Her suspicions first arise when she notices the man asking her father for information about his university’s research project.

A panel in ‘Xiao Hong’s Struggle Against Dear Grandpa’ reads: “Then [Grandpa] asked her father: ‘I hear you work at a university. Teaching, right?’ Her father said: ‘No, I am doing research.’ Grandpa commended, ‘very good, very good!'”  (Translation from ChinaSmack)
“Grandpa then said: ‘Foreigners say our science and technology are backwards, which is simply nonsense, [because] our nation’s technological development is not slow, right?’ Father said: ‘Yes, it is developing rapidly, for example our electrical engineering…’ ‘Dad!’ Xiao Hong pushed the door open and entered, casting him a glare.” (ChinaSmack)

Xiao Hong later catches him listening to a transistor radio overnight, which leads her to report him to authorities.

“After a while, a noise came from the kitchen, and Xiao Hong heard a woman’s voice calling out numbers from a transistor radio, quietly: ‘Four, four, nine, three; one, eight, one three…’ Xiao Hong thought it was strange, and nudged her mother, but her mother had actually already woken up as well, and indicated to Xiao Hong that she should keep quiet and lie still.” (ChinaSmack)
“In reality, he is a Soviet spy. A man by the alias of ‘Big Nose’ wanted him to take advantage of going home to visit relatives to collect intelligence on our country’s technology.” (ChinaSmack)
“Last night, he hid in the kitchen and received his secret orders from the transistor radio, and now he is writing a letter to them.” (ChinaSmack)

Harnessing her “revolutionary spirit,” she reports him to the police, who arrest and punish him.

“At this very moment, a police officer and two militia pushed open the door and entered, and solemnly said, ‘You are arrested!’” (ChinaSmack)

Social media reaction to the most recent cartoons in China focused more on the characters’ dating than the spying. One commentator alleges the woman dating a foreigner is likely from Shanghai, a dig at city’s abundance of foreigners. Another suggested a happier ending for the story (link in Chinese)—”The Ministry of State Security should print them a marriage certificate.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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