- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Chinese Internet users have a message for the screenwriters of The Blacklist: You’ve got a lot to learn about our country.
The third episode of The Blacklist, a new NBC television drama in which the FBI and a former fugitive team up to fight terrorism, features a villain named Wujing, a Chinese spy who kills CIA operatives. The hunt for Wujing sparks a discussion among FBI agents about his background as the second child in a Chinese family. Because of China’s one-child policy, one of the agents claims, Wujing was cast out from his home and became "invisible" to his family.
China’s one-child policy is restrictive, but not as draconian as The Blacklist depicts. Some Chinese are not limited to one child: Exceptions for minorities, rural residents, and others mean that a significant portion of China’s population is allowed to have at least two children. "If all second children had to be sent away, China would lose at least half of its population," remarked one user of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. When those who are subject to the one-child policy violate it, enforcement can be brutal, but it is also uneven. Many families find a way around the law, paying an administrative fee to get authorities off their backs.
Even in areas where the policy is strictly enforced, the vast majority of Chinese who have a second child are far more likely to pull strings, pay fees, and suffer punishments than cast out their children. Many parents choose to violate the policy if they have a daughter first, in hopes that their second child will be male. "Those who have additional children do it to get a boy!" One Weibo user wrote, "Why would they throw [Wujing] out?" Children born in violation of the one-child policy suffer more from administrative disadvantages than from shunning — it is sometimes more difficult for them to obtain the household registration permits that are required for schooling or health care.
The Blacklist‘s mischaracterization of the one-child policy has drawn mockery in China, where pirated, subtitled editions of many U.S. television shows enjoy broad followings. Weibo user @syrinxoy mused, "All of a sudden my little brother and sister seem really mysterious." For some, Wujing’s story inspired envy: "After I saw this," wrote one, "I really wished I had been a second child." Other users joked that if Wujing’s back story were true, there was at least a silver lining. "Under the one-child policy," wrote @Mr_Faceless, "There are so many unregistered children, we’ll never lack for spies." Another user chimed in: "China’s rural areas are full of potential special agents."
The first episode of The Blacklist, which aired Sept. 23, has already received a combined 6.5 million views on Youku, QQ TV, and Sohu TV, popular YouTube-like sites in China. Weibo users complained that the show’s third episode was pulled from video sites, perhaps due to its perceived anti-China bias. But some Weibo users found that the Wujing plotline showcased common ground between Chinese and Americans. User @IFYOUAREFREE wrote, "We often think that it’s difficult to understand the United States. It looks like it’s even harder to get China."