There’s an old Chinese proverb: “Kill the chicken, scare the monkey.” It means the best way to intimidate a large adversary is to destroy a small one. Yet the proverb hardly describes America’s response to the recent cyber attack on Sony Pictures. Nor does it characterize the domestic debate over whether or not Sony should have cancelled or restricted the Christmas Day release of its controversial film, The Interview.
If the Obama administration grasped the wisdom of the proverb, it would have made whatever countermeasures it took against North Korea serve also as a warning to China, which routinely uses sophisticated hacking to penetrate U.S. governmental and non-governmental organizations. But that isn’t what the White House is choosing to do. On the contrary, it is opting—as usual—to kick the little North Korean chicken and kowtow to the mighty Chinese monkey.
Start with President Obama’s bewildering call to Beijing for help on the Sony hacking case. China is a world leader in cyber know-how, with capabilities that dwarf those of North Korea, even though the latter are surprisingly advanced. And China has long deployed those capabilities against the U.S. government and military, as well as against American businesses and NGOs. Thus, it is possible that, if Pyongyang directed the hacking, it did not act alone.
Indeed, as recently as October, the FBI warned that a network of “exceedingly stealthy and agile” Chinese government hackers is conducting an energetic campaign to steal data from a wide range of American institutions. Of course, this is the same FBI that is now declaring itself 99 percent certain that Pyongyang is behind the Sony hacking. But China has also been accused by the U.S. Department of Justice: earlier this year, the department issued indictments against the People’s Liberation Army hackers for conducting industrial espionage in the United States. (See Joel Brenner’s essay on this topic from the January/February issue.)
Beijing reacted angrily to those indictments, which is not surprising. But thus far, the Chinese have also declined to engage with Obama on his request for help with the Sony case. Apparently, some things are too surreal even for the Chinese Communist Party’s Department of Propaganda and Thought Work.
It’s no mystery why Washington plays down Beijing’s cyber-transgressions in this realm. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy depends on “pragmatic cooperation,” as the president puts it. There’s nothing wrong with this; engagement is necessary with a nation as large and powerful as China. But when the President also says it is time to discard “outdated zero-sum thinking” with regard to China, one wonders what he means. Not since President Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing have U.S.-China relations been dominated by zero-sum thinking. Is Obama naive? Or has the meaning of “pragmatic” changed, so that now there is no balance between security concerns and commercial self-interest?
Here’s the real difference between the chicken and the monkey—or maybe we should say gorilla. North Korea, with its paltry population of 28 million and its impoverished, closed society, is not a tempting market for U.S. companies. Nor does Pyongyang have a team of lobbyists defending its image in the United States. China, on the other hand, has more than a billion consumers hungry for everything that America produces, and its lobbyists, if you can call them that, are everywhere.
That brings us to The Interview. Two-thirds of the revenues for Hollywood blockbusters are generated from overseas markets. China is far from being the most lucrative of these—according to Ben Fritz of the Wall Street Journal, it is fifth on the list, after the UK, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. But it is already a cash cow for Hollywood, with revenue hitting $1.78 billion this year, up 32 percent in the first nine months of 2014. Transformers: Age of Extinction took the lead with $320 million in profits.
Measure this against the potential of a Chinese market completely open and friendly to U.S. entertainment products, and you have all the explanation you need for why American movies feature so many North Korean villains and so few Chinese.
Consider the MGM movie Red Dawn, a 2012 remake of a 1984 movie starring Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen as American teenagers fighting a guerilla war against a Soviet-Cuban-Nicaraguan invasion. Originally, the remake’s invading army was Chinese. But during post-production, MGM got wind of hostile coverage in the Chinese press and re-edited the film, making the invaders North Korean. The studio had reason to worry: its 1997 film, Red Corner, starring Richard Gere and lambasting the Chinese legal system, led to a PRC boycott of MGM films.
Announcing a petition against Sony’s decision to cancel the Christmas release of The Interview, the actor George Clooney declared, in high Hollywood dudgeon, “We’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have.” That is a problem, indeed. But in an industry where most players are willing to alter scripts, change casting decisions, and edit final product according to the dictates of Beijing’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), there’s nothing new about letting an actual country decide what kind of content we’re going to have.
Meanwhile, in cineplexes all over America, the defenders of free expression will doubtless cheer when Kim Jong-un’s face is burned away by an explosion at the end of The Interview. We hate to spoil the holiday, but the price of freedom has never been that low, and it isn’t now.