Why Chinese Spies Don’t Fall in Love

May 7, 2020

By examining popular narratives such as spy thrillers and anti-corruption dramas, Haiyan Lee argues that we must expand our understanding of justice, beyond merely fairness, to understand why “liberty and justice for all” may not have universal appeal.

Lee, who is the Ellen Andrews Wright Fellow at the Humanities Center this year, is a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Stanford. She is the author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 and The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination. Her current book project, A Certain Justice: Toward an Ecology of the Chinese Legal Imagination, examines justice as a juridical, ethical, aesthetic, ecological, and cosmological concept as it emerges from a variety of verbal and visual genres.

What’s the significance of love in your work?

Love has been a running theme in my work. My first book, Revolution of the Heart, takes a long historical view of the emergence of the modern idea of love in China. In the early 20th century, young people embraced “free love” as a gesture of rebelling against authoritarian parents and conservative Confucian ideology that mandated submission to the ruler, the father, and the husband.

Today, freedom in matters of the heart is taken for granted by most Chinese, especially the young. But love has never achieved the sublime, uncontested status that it enjoys in the West. In light of moral foundations theory, it makes sense. The Chinese have always valued “community” and “divinity” more than “autonomy.” And insofar as love is associated with individual freedom and rights, it is regarded with ambivalence.

What do you mean by moral foundations theory?

Anthropologists and psychologists use moral foundations theory to explain why different societies could feel so differently about certain things. In a nutshell, there are three basic moral foundations: autonomy, community, and divinity. And there are demographic differences. Western, educated people living in industrial, rich, democratic countries tend to care mostly about values associated with “autonomy,” such as freedom, justice, rights, dignity, and equality. They usual fall into the liberal camp.

Elsewhere, both in the developing world and within developed nations, people care more about values associated with “community” and “divinity,” such as loyalty, hierarchy, patriotism, purity, spirituality, etc. They are the typical conservatives. Because liberals and conservatives operate from different moral foundations, they can have diametrically opposite feelings and positions on issues.

So even if they’re speaking the same political language, they are in fact talking past each other: the liberals defending “autonomy” while the conservatives defending “community” and “divinity.”

Could this theory help explain hot-button issues in American politics like the Presidential election?

Indeed, these intense feelings are the reason why certain things become “hot-button” issues. For example, both liberals and conservatives value respect.

Earlier this year after President Trump delivered the State of the Union address, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up her copy of the speech. A Trump supporter interviewed by NPR found the gesture wholly unacceptable: "It was just disrespectful!" When the reporter reminded her that Trump himself can be disrespectful of others, too, and gave the example of him mocking a disabled journalist, the supporter dismissed it as fake news.

The point is that although both sides were talking about respect, they were in fact activating different moral foundations: The Trump supporter was talking about respect for authority (community and divinity), whereas the reporter was talking about respect for individual dignity (autonomy). They’re talking past each other without realizing it. So much of our political quarrel takes place in this fashion, leading to growing polarization and embitterment.

In the first chapter of your book project, as the provocative title suggests, you look at Chinese spy thrillers whose heroes are surprisingly strait-laced about love and sex, in other words, very un-James Bond like. What does this say about Chinese culture?

In Chinese spy thrillers, the heroes (almost always male) are decidedly and determinedly unlike James Bond. They are brave, competent, and dedicated, but positively abstemious when it comes to love and sex. Women find them irresistible and invariably fall desperately in love with them. But they evade, even rebuff the advances of these love-struck women. None of the women is allowed to slip into the role of a Bond-girl.

Conspiracy (original title: Ansuan, 2005)

Once again, we can use moral foundations theory to make sense of the “strangeness” of Chinese spy thrillers. The Bond stories mainly activate the autonomy foundation. Sure, he defends the waning British empire, but his heroics are always couched in the name of defending freedom, or the free world against tyranny and the totalitarian nightmare.

So Bond’s many romances are his way of enacting or exercising what he is defending: freedom. The Chinese spy, on the other hand, sacrifices love (or life itself) to defend the nation, which rests on both the “community” and “divinity” foundations (the nation as the sacred, sovereign homeland of all Chinese). So he must renounce love/autonomy for the sake of the sacred community.

What are you ultimately hoping to explain about justice in your book?

In the West, justice, like freedom, is what philosophers call a “hypergood,” meaning a good that is more or less taken for granted and needs no defense. American students have pledged “liberty and justice for all” every day at school. You will not find a similar expression in China, nor is there a Chinese word that corresponds neatly to “justice.”

The Chinese do care about justice, but if we examine popular narratives, we will see that both the scale and orientation of justice are quite different. In a liberal democracy, justice is a horizontal concept. It’s about fairness: the fair distribution of resources and opportunity, the fair treatment of individuals before the law, and so on. This notion of justice is the driving force behind most detective fiction and legal thrillers.

"The Chinese do care about justice, but if we examine popular narratives, we will see that both the scale and orientation of justice are quite different."

In China, justice is as much a vertical concept as a horizontal concept. In the vertical sense, justice is about the legitimacy and moral supremacy of the ruler who oversees the stability and security of the community. This is “high justice.” Its claims almost always trump those of “low justice,” or justice in the interpersonal sense, as a question of individual rights and civil liberties.

In other words, matters of political legitimacy, social control, and communal harmony have priority over matters of personal right and wrong. This holds true even when high justice may be the very cause of injustice at the interpersonal level, as in cases of abuse of power. It may be difficult for Western readers to wrap their minds around this.

That’s why I feel a book-length treatment is called for. If we confine our understanding of justice to fairness, much of what’s going on in China will appear to be mere human rights violations, authoritarian excesses, or sheer dictatorship. We will not be able to make sense of how the society hangs together despite pervasive injustices, or why Chinese audiences are drawn so much more to spy thrillers and anti-corruption dramas than to crime mysteries.

Has anything changed given the current situation?

The COVID-19 pandemic has set the vertical orientation of justice in sharper relief. While the full scope of the story remains murky, it is safe to say that local officials in Wuhan failed to follow established procedures for reporting a contagious disease outbreak due to an entrenched habit to prioritize social stability over individual welfare.

The subsequent draconian (and in hindsight belated) lockdown measures, too, placed high justice over low justice. While segments of the Chinese population have openly voiced their outrage over the tragic loss of lives and pointed a collective finger at the suppression of whistleblowers and relentless censorship, most Chinese have obeyed the government’s stay-at-home order and submitted to a raft of invasive surveillance technologies in a spirit of voluntary cooperation.

The apparent effectiveness of the containment measures in bringing the pandemic under a semblance of control will further boost the regime’s legitimacy. It is a stark case of subordinating low justice to high justice.