On Sunday morning I woke up to, not one, but two editorials lamenting the fact that Hollywood hasn't yet granted James Bond the license to kill Chinese people. Foreign Policy, the prestigious publication catering to global power influencers, published an essay by James Crabtree headlined "New Bond Can't Take On Beijing's Supervillains." Crabtree, a Foreign Policy columnist and the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia, thought Daniel Craig's final outing as 007 suffered from "melodrama and incoherent action." He has a solution:
"... The world is entering an era of great-power competition with a particular focus on China. This second Cold War should be good for Bond, given most of his finest outings took place against the backdrop of the first."
To Crabtree, a James Bond who doesn't confront Chinese "supervillains" represents a "franchise ... untethered from geopolitical reality." That's a telling statement. To Crabtree and others of like mind, Cold War-like conflict with China is not just inevitable, it is the defining "geopolitical reality" of this historical moment. And to the Foreign Policy editors who wrote his headline, the Chinese are nothing less than "supervillains."
Ross Douthat has a similar column in the New York Times. Under the headline, "James Bond Has No Time for China," Douthat laments that after five films starring Daniel Craig, "amid all the globe-trotting and intrigue you would barely know that China existed."
Both Crabtree and Douthat expand upon the Bond theme to lament the overall absence of anti-China films coming out of Hollywood. Both point out that one of the last films to portray China as evil was 1997's "Seven Years in Tibet." Neither raise the rather inconvenient fact that "Seven Years in Tibet" glorified the experiences of Heinrich Harrar, who was a member of the Nazi Party and an honorary officer in the SS.
That's the way Cold War alliances work. Whether it's Harrar in fiction or leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in real life, Cold War advocates inevitably overlook their allies' darknesses in pursuit of their perceived enemy.
To be fair, Douthat's column is much more nuanced than Crabtree's. Where Crabtree is two-dimensional in his presentation, Douthat lays out a number of Western perspectives on the US-China relationship. He summarizes the varying positions in an insightful way, even if he renders some leftist positions slightly cartoonishly. His column is worth reading.
What Douthat doesn't do is describe the extreme dangers posed by escalating tensions with China. Those tensions have largely been provoked by us, not them. As a recent New York Times article illustrates, perhaps unintentionally, a 1996 show of force near Taiwan by the United States had a profound and long-term effect. "Since then," writes the Times, "China's leaders have poured money into the People's Liberation Army. In a decade, military spending grew by 76 percent, reaching $252 billion in 2020."
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That's less than a third of what the U.S. spends on its military. But it illustrates the growing threat of military confrontation. Congress is planning to allocate $3.9 billion for military efforts in the South China Sea. How would the U.S. feel if China budgeted the same among for military activity along the Pacific coast of the United States?
Cold Wars are not just ideological creations. They're deeply linked to the war economy, and to an overdependence on technology as a solution for human problems. "The impossibility of Bond deploying Q branch's gadgets against Beijing's Ministry of State Security ought to be a serious cause for concern," Crabtree writes.
As propaganda, the James Bond of the first Cold War was a brilliant (if diabolical) creation. Fleming's books frequently described him, oddly and fetishistically, as having "a cruel mouth." In the movies, he was a rapist, a racist, and a sadist.
Bond glamorized and sexualized expensive weaponry and espionage tools, which helped pave the way for massive spending on weaponry and spy technology. He idealized the violent sexism of the warrior class. He reduced torture and killing to a shallow kabuki, often offering a flippant quip when a Russian or other villain was killed. John F. Kennedy, who played his own part in escalating the first Cold War, was reportedly a big fan of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels.
Bond 1.0 sounds like an ideal avatar for the New Cold War. Why hasn't Hollywood enlisted him in the effort? Crabtree and Douthat have an answer. In Crabtree's words, "Hollywood's fear of Beijing means Bond has a China problem—and one that should worry cinema fans and the West alike."
It's not that Hollywood has developed new scruples about being used as an instrument of the national security state. The Spy Culture website tracks the interrelationship between military and intelligence agencies and the entertainment industry. Films like "The Interview" and "Zero Dark Thirty," as well as TV shows like Homeland and Jack Ryan, are certainly doing their part. Crabtree and Douthat are basically right about Hollywood's China syndrome, although it's not "fear of Beijing" that drives it; it's love of profit.
Unlike the first Cold War, the new one is built on a paradox. Influential forces in the West are determined to stoke military tensions with China, just as they did with the Soviet Union. But our economy is interlinked with China's in ways that our leaders have no wish to end. Low-cost Chinese labor is essential to Western corporate profits, at least for the time being, and China's growing prosperity has made it a major market for products like those produced in Hollywood.
It's odd, to say the least. It's apparently acceptable to excoriate Hollywood for making money from Chinese markets, but it's off-limits to condemn corporations like Apple for making money from Chinese workers. It's almost as if certain pundits were working undercover "on their oligarchy's secret service." But there's no conspiracy here, no spycraft or subliminal messaging.
These pundits aren't objecting to Hollywood's pursuit of profits. They're longing for the day when James Bond played his part in stoking a Cold War, when he was a propaganda weapon that helped give politicians and military contractors license to kill. Unfortunately, the New Cold War could kill us all.
Richard J. Eskow