The spy who loved her

Espionage drama is a big hit with local audiences and the Party’s bosses

Tong Yao-w

Tong Yao: stars as the ‘Red heroine’ in popular new spy series

There is rarely a shortage of spy dramas on TV. More recent examples tell the stories of the brilliant but unstable CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Homeland or the KGB’s Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a nondescript couple that infiltrates the Washington suburbs in the Ronald Reagan era in The Americans.

The genre is a little less prolific in China, although there have been some successes over the years with Red and Pretenders winning audience plaudits in 2014 and 2015 respectively. But you have to go back to the huge 2009 hit Lurk (see WiC13) to find the show that really got audiences interested in this category of drama. That riveting series followed the strategems of a secret agent embedded by the Communist Party in the then ruling Kuomintang (KMT) as civil war broke out in 1945 (at the time a lot of Chinese viewers said it was a must-watch for anyone looking to master the subtler points of office politics).

Now, another series has breathed yet more life into the genre this year. The Rebel, which was released last month on state-run broadcaster CCTV and online streaming platform iQiyi, follows the career of secret agent Lin Nansheng.

In 1936 Lin (played by actor Zhu Yilong) joins the Blue Shirt Society, a secret organisation that aims to boost the KMT during a period of increasing incursions from the Japanese. The young spy-in-training is sent to Shanghai, a nexus for spooks in a complex period where the KMT, the Communists, the Japanese and ‘treaty port’ foreign powers like Britain are all scheming frantically. His job: to investigate an intelligence leak within the organisation.

After Lin eliminates the mole who had been passing information to the Communists he is promoted and becomes the right-hand man to the Shanghai station chief.

But then he meets the beautiful Communist Party agent Zhu Yizhen (Tong Yao) and finds himself falling in love with his enemy (as the show was released ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party this week, there’s no need to speculate about where Lin’s loyalties end up).

The series concluded its 43-episode run last week and it has received a strong rating of 8.3 out of 10 on Douban, the review site, with netizens widely impressed by the screenplay and Zhu’s acting. “It’s been a long time since I’ve watched an espionage drama. I have always liked the genre and the rhythm of The Rebel is really well-paced. I really like it,” one netizen gushed.

“Lin Nansheng is a very rich, real and moving character. When we first meet him, he’s inexperienced, impulsive, resentful and desperate. He is not perfect but his character feels real. And Zhu Yilong’s outstanding acting skills bring so much life to the character, showing the changes throughout Lin’s life. That’s why the audience empathises with his story: his persistence to search for light and hope in the dark,” another netizen claimed.

The show was released at a time when the Chinese intelligence services have made a few headlines of their own. Last month China’s top spycatcher Dong Jingwei, the vice-minister of state security, urged his colleagues to step up their efforts to hunt down foreign agents who collude with “anti-China” forces. New counter-espionage protocols were also announced in April that put the onus on social groups and businesses to stay on the lookout for spies too.

“At present, infiltration and spying activities by foreign intelligence agencies and hostile forces have increased significantly. In particular, there are individuals who have willingly become ‘insiders’, colluding with foreign intelligence agencies and hostile forces and engaging in anti-China activities,” Dong was quoted as saying during at the seminar.

In true cloak-and-dagger style, shortly before Dong made his clarion call some Western media sources reported that he had defected to the United States to spill a host of high-level secrets himself.

Perhaps as a way of countering these allegations, photos were then released of Dong’s attendance at a June 23 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The government has also been reminding the public of its duty to the nation: war veterans were given centre-stage coverage in the media last week to share their experiences of how they put their own lives in danger to serve their country.

In two examples, spies Li Yucai and Wang Risheng travelled through enemy-occupied areas during the Sino-Japanese War to pass information to Mao Zedong’s Red Army. Another aged secret agent talked about fighting alongside Li Bai, one of China’s most famous spies, and setting up a communication channel to pass information about the KMT to the Communist Party (Li was later caught and interrogated but “like a true patriot”, he refused to give up any information).

Back to The Rebel – state media has been reporting that sales of Mao Zedong’s selected works have been given a boost by the spy drama. The trigger seems to have been a scene in which Lin listens to a radio broadcast of Mao’s speeches in which he calls for small revolutionary groups to fight the power of the state. E-book downloads of Mao’s speeches have surged, the Global Times delightedly noted, while orders for the second volume of Selected Works of Mao Zedong have flooded e-commerce platforms

Meanwhile Lin’s excitement in listening to the speech on the radio is mirrored in younger viewers enthusiasm for the drama’s patriotic message, the Global Times added. As an example Wan Feng, 27, told the newspaper: “Probably because I live in an age of peace, I hadn’t tried to understand the experiences and thoughts of revolutionaries, even Chairman Mao, but after watching the episode, I suddenly have a similar feeling as Lin Nansheng and respect the strong will and belief of our predecessors.”

And if Wan likes this fare, he’ll be delighted to hear that seven more spy dramas are set to air this year.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.