By Paul French
If you want to understand a country’s national obsessions and public concerns, watch their TV crime dramas. Cop shows, at least those with contemporary settings, reveal what the folks at home are worried about: they draw on popular tabloid stories and reveal the state of the nation’s concerns. This televisual truism is slightly skewed in China, however, where cop shows, censored and sanitized as they are, usually show what CCTV (the state-controlled broadcaster) thinks people should be worried about — invariably anything that threatens “social harmony.” In Chinese cop shows, the bad guys are usually either foreigners (often overseas Chinese from elsewhere), minorities (Uighurs from Xinjiang, mostly), or people with (unfounded, of course!) grudges against the Party. Chinese TV cops are clean-living, invariably uniformed, polite, and care only for the peoples’ welfare. Still, I can’t help wondering: What would a Chinese cop show be like if the censors took a holiday?
I watch an awful lot of cop shows — far more than it’s good for an ordinary person with work to do to spend time slumped on the couch absorbing. And from all these hours of viewing, one thing occurred to me. If Chinese crime TV were censor-free, then it might look a lot more like French and Belgian crime shows than anything else.
Let me explain. My viewing tells me that Americans fear terrorism, serial killers, widespread drug-dealing, and insane people. The British are currently obsessed with immigrants, people-traffickers, youth gangs, and pedophiles. The Scandinavians seem rather keen on obscure Christian religious fundamentalists, alienated urban youth, and, once again, immigrants. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Italians ruminate largely on organized crime, sex scandals, and the Church. In other words, the bad guys on cop shows reflect the concerns of the nation, real or imagined.
All of these themes pop up in French and Belgian crime dramas too, but one theme runs through the majority of French-Belgian cop shows that is largely absent from elsewhere — the perfidious and seemingly omnipotent power of a secretive elite that encompasses politics, the law, the wealthy, the bankers, the military, and the police high command. This elite is capable of cover-ups, political fixes, and making crimes disappear. We, the public, are unaware of their networks. Their sole purpose is to protect themselves and their money and power. They feel answerable to nobody, will kill and falsely incriminate to protect their interests, socialize together and intermarry, have largely useless children whose messes need sorting out, and generally frustrate hard-working ordinary coppers while having complete disdain for the common folk. Can you tell where I’m going with this?
So I’ll just mention a couple of shows – France’s Spiral (Engrenages) and Belgium’s Flemish-language show Salamander. Spiral, now in its fifth season, follows the lives and work of a bunch of Parisian flics and the lawyers and judges who work at the Palais de Justice. Pondering season one today, which involves a murder that leads to the uncovering of a corrupt network of highly connected Parisians stretching up to the ÉlyséePalace itself, it must have been serendipity that I saw this headline on Twitter: “Brother of former senior Chinese official probed for graft.” Ripped from the headlines, as they say — Ling Zhengce, a high-level Communist Party politico in Shanxi province, is the elder brother of Ling Jihua, a former senior aide to former president Hu Jintao. Spiral has it all for a Chinese audience looking for parallels — senior politicians whose families are involved in murder; secret links between politicians, judges, and top cops with organized crime; and a political establishment able to derail police investigations, fabricate evidence, and cover up the killing of a foreigner working in France. Think Chongqing rather than Paris, think disgraced city Party chief Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai (accused and sentenced for the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood) … it’s not much of a stretch. And the good guys don’t always win in Spiral — deals are done, accommodations made to protect careers and well-placed families, cops and judges do turn a blind eye following a phone call. As I said, not much of a stretch for a Chinese audience.
And then we have Salamander. The 12-part show starts with 66 safe-deposit boxes belonging to the most powerful people in Belgium being robbed. The victims are members of a secret organization called Salamander, made up of the country’s industrial, financial, judicial, and political elite, and the safe-deposit boxes contained their most intimate secrets. As the secrets leak, leading politicians resign, are disgraced, or commit suicide (or rather are encouraged to take the honorable way out for their family’s sake). I finished the show and opened my copy of The Guardian to read “Chinese official ‘kills himself’ in latest Communist party suicide mystery.” This April, senior Communist official Xu Ye’an killed himself in his office. The People’s Daily reported that “The cause is unknown,” without elaborating. This mystery came hard on the heels of Deputy Director of the State Council Information Office Li Wufeng, a former official in the corruption-ridden Three Gorges Dam Project Corporation, jumping off the roof of a very high Beijing building. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Zhou Yu, a senior police official in Chongqing, also apparently killed himself. Zhou was a key figure in Bo Xilai’s crackdown on organized crime. And so we come full circle, with the Beijing government, according to Radio France International, issuing an order to China’s newspapers and media outlets: “No reports on accidental death of civil servants at all central state organs to be discussed.”
In recent months we’ve seen a right kerfuffle about Beijing banning the decidedly less edgy American comedy The Big Bang Theory and Chinese netizens discussing the ins and outs of Kevin Spacey’s Congressman Frank Underwood’s China views in season two of House of Cards. But perhaps Chinese TV viewers would do better to look to France and Belgium for TV that might resonate a bit closer to home.