Ross Douthat: James Bond has no time for China

The reality of China as a superpower never figures in any of Daniel Craig’s plots.

In this image released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions, Daniel Craig appears in a scene from the James Bond film, "Spectre." The movie releases in U.S. theaters on Nov. 6, 2015. (Jonathan Olley/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions via AP)

The final James Bond outing for Daniel Craig, “No Time to Die,” also marks a notable milestone for Bondian geopolitics: The franchise just completed a five-movie arc with a single lead actor, and amid all the globe-trotting and intrigue, you would barely know that China existed. Shanghai and Macao were brief backdrops, and one villain had been tortured, offstage and in the past, by Chinese security forces — but overall, a series released across the years of China’s rise gave little hint that America’s leading rival mattered any more than any other exotic Bondian locale.

In fairness, the Cold War-era Bond movies were not obsessed with Russia, serving up stateless supervillains rather than Soviet adversaries in many of his outings. But the reality of Russian power was part of the fabric of the series. The same actor showed up as the head of the KGB, for instance, in five Bond movies in the 1970s and ‘80s.

China’s absence from Bondworld is part of a general absence in American cinema. Out of fear of losing the Chinese market and amid the aggressive use of commercial soft power by Beijing, in the almost quarter-century since Brad Pitt’s “Seven Years in Tibet” and Richard Gere’s “Red Corner,” no major Hollywood release has portrayed the communist regime in a substantially negative light. Instead, China appears in our pop productions in soft focus, as in “The Martian” and “Arrival,” or else takes a fantastical form, as in “Mulan” and “Shang-Chi.”

Or just as often, as in the Craig movies, it barely appears at all. The Asian pop culture that has increasing influence on America is mostly Korean and Japanese, while China — despite all its power, despite our economic intertwinement, despite its crucial role in our political and now our public health debates — remains more a domain for experts, its internal life and culture more distant and opaque.

As a consequence, its relationship to American ideological debates is fluid, fraught and strange. Things were simpler 15 years ago, when openness to China — a politics of commercial exchange, with the expectation of China’s liberalization and occasional envy for its apparent technocratic competence — was the default establishment position, with economic critiques of what the “Chimerican” relationship meant for American workers and fears of Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions concentrated on the farther left and right.

But as it became clear that the opening to China was not leading to political liberalization, and as its socioeconomic costs to the American heartland became clear as well, there was an ideological scrambling that hasn’t ended yet.

On the left now, you see several impulses. There is an irrelevant but fascinating fringe of very online “tankies” — a reference to the communists who justified the USSR sending in the tanks to Hungary — actively championing the Beijing regime. There is a Bernie Sanders left that wants to critique the Chinese regime on trade and human rights but fears anything that seems like warmongering. And there is a left that thinks the existential stakes of climate change require deep cooperation with Beijing.

The center, meanwhile, has lost its optimism about China turning into a democracy. But it’s not sure whether to pivot to confrontation and try to disentangle our economies, or whether globalization makes that disentanglement impossible, and so we need, with whatever nose-holding, to deepen ties instead. (This divide runs through President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.)

The right includes several tendencies as well. There’s a Cold War 2.0 mentality, which fears China as a sweeping ideological threat, a fusion of old-model communism with 21st-century surveillance technology that promises to make totalitarianism great again. There’s a realist perspective that regards China as a traditional great power rival and focuses on military containment. And there’s a view that sees China and the United States as actually converging in decadence — with similar problems, from declining birthrates to social inequalities to internet-mediated unhappiness.

But for some on the right, that last view comes with a wrinkle, where the Chinese state is almost admired for trying to act against this decadence — as in its attempt to wean young people off the “spiritual opium” of video gaming — in a way that liberal societies cannot.

Behind all of these differences is a question: What kind of regime is China, really? A Marxist-Leninist state with capitalist trimmings? An authoritarian meritocracy? A fascist state with Maoist characteristics? A new form of digitized totalitarianism? A neo-Confucian order, channeling ancient conservatism through modern one-party rule? A dark-mirror version of internet-age America?

Americans have never exactly excelled at understanding other societies, and a few Chinese bad guys in James Bond movies obviously won’t shed the light we need. But Hollywood’s supine attitude toward Chinese power is a useful window into a larger problem: We need to see our great 21st-century rival clearly, and too often we see only through a glass darkly, if at all.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.