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Society & Culture

Hollywood Strikes Back

Apr 11, 2019

A mysterious female gate-crasher to the heavily-commercialized Mar-a-Lago presidential residence in Florida tells the secret service guards she's going for a swim, and they let her in, only to discover she is carrying four phones, two passports and a twitchy memory stick, but no bathing suit. This alone is enough to make the caper at Mar-a-Lago sound like a budding Hollywood film, and in a way, it is. A China spy story in the making.

Hollywood tropes not only fire up the imagination but help us fill in the gaps. Celluloid memes are ready for the taking--for strivers, media myth-makers and voyeurs alike. Well-shaped narratives not only entertain but inform; they paint the world in a way that appeals to pre-conditioned prejudices, easy to grasp and easy to remember.  


That's the teaser for the April 2, 2019 episode of The Young Turks, hosted by TV personality Cenk Uygur, who promotes it as the largest online news show in the world. Even before the facts were in, it was quick to trump up the China spy angle. Clickbait?

Russia Today, no stranger to manipulating the news, likewise invoked the China spy angle right from the start:  


Coming from Russia, the irony is thick. In a few short words, the Russia Today story makes fun of the US Secret Service, questions lax Presidential security and plays around with the espionage angle, stoking up fears already stirred up by the US media, while absolving Moscow of fear-mongering by putting the term ‘Chinese spy’ in scare quotes. 


That's the early report from Fox News. In contrast to its usual sensational coverage, the headline is rather fastidious with the facts, couching the claim on a statement made by the “feds.”  


The New York Times first report on the breaking story subtly shifted the emphasis from an individual to a country. There wasn’t much hard information to report at this point, so it was left up to the Times' readership, already primed by the prim Gray Lady’s long-held, unladylike editorial grudge against Beijing, to connect the dots.  

Senior Democratic senators such as Charles Schumer, Mark Warner and Diane Feinstein reacted to the news by raising the specter of targeting by “foreign intelligence services,” no doubt sensing an angle on which to discredit Trump, but even anti-communist Republican Marco Rubio, who has been quick to jump on the anti-China bandwagon, downplayed the China spy whispers:  

“That’s always a threat, but I don’t know enough about this person or this case to make a bold pronouncement on what happened here or what this is about.”  

The US media, suffering from Trump derangement syndrome in the wake of the conning developer’s soul-jolting victory in 2016, has shown an abject willingness to trade sensation for profit. The result? A never-ending need to feed the advertising beast, to demonize and misdirect, a need to titillate, hyperventilate and find an angle, especially an angle that sells, like anything dealing with Trump. 

The reason why this small story is worth watching is because the American public, tired of the inconclusive Russian collusion story, is ready for a new sensation. The discredited media is scrambling to find something fresh, a new juicy target for fear-mongering.

Enter a femme fatale named China, stage left.

It’s not that espionage is not a problem; it is. Both the US and China have much to answer for in the cloak-and-dagger realm. But the adding the word “China” to “spy” before the facts are in ups the ante in a way that plays sexy in media terms, but is patently unfair. If the media gets sloppy, or carried away with sizzle and fizz of a malicious and perhaps salacious China angle, it will be hurtful to ordinary citizens from China and to Americans of Chinese descent as well.

China spy. Secret Service. Infiltration. These words have a sharp ring to them, ready to go straight to film. Hollywood narratives have a life of their own and a rich after-life. One need not have seen the films to know of the fictional villain Fu Manchu.

And yes, even the bumbling spy has a rich pedigree, more Peter Sellers than Sean Connery. Take your pick: Get Smart, The Man Who Knew Too Little, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Spies Like Us

The Tinseltown touch, serious or silly, simplifies the plot. It helps make good-guy-vs-bad-guy sense of situations that are not entirely good, bad, simple nor easy to make sense of. 

The purported agent, Zhang Yujing, is clearly no Nikita. And no self-respecting member of the Charlie’s Angels trio would forget the bathing suit. 

It’s not inconceivable that she was sleuthing sub rosa, a modern Mata Hari intrigued by the apparent porousness of Trump’s Crackerjack Palace, looking for a vicarious entry into a flashy world of intrigue, cash and proximity to power.

So, was the trespasser a con, or perhaps the victim of a con? Both? Neither? A freelance snoop? A state agent? Too soon to say.

Ms. Zhang Yujing is just one in a long line of individuals, not all of whom were well in the mind, who were partially successful in breaching the security perimeter of a presidential residence, yet rarely has the trespasser’s race and nation of origin been as much a part of the story as it is with her.  

What was the racial identity of the last three people who hopped the White House fence?   

In today’s retrograde political climate, where strongmen reign supreme, and walls and barriers of all kinds are being erected, there is an ever-present danger of demonization or vilification of people that are lumped together as members of a group, whether the categorization be perceived or real, racial, religious or national.  

The age old us-versus-them is back with a vengeance. 

If documentary evidence leads investigators to establish a direct link between the alleged spying activity and a foreign government, so be it--then it's a spy story in which race and nationality may indeed factor in, and factor in fairly. Until such a time, it is better to withhold judgement of her mission, if indeed she even had one.

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