The Longest Day in Chang’an has been lauded as one of the best modern Chinese tv series, with fans going so far to say it is of comparable quality to some of the best Western shows. Parallels have been drawn with Game of Thrones, since both focus heavily on characters’ perspectives and motivations.
In brief, the show is about a fictional counter-terrorism unit that appears to work in conjunction with the censorate, which was a real historical bureau in ancient China whose task was to review the actions of the emperor and the rest of the government and determine whether they were just and fair. In the show, the counter-terrorism unit is called the Peacekeeper Corps, and the premise is that they were founded specifically to stop one impending terrorist attack.
It is a fascinating view into how Chinese culture views issues of surveillance and governmental decision-making. It is ultimately about whether the government’s duty is to the people or to the emperor, and whether the ends justify the means.
In addition to the fascinating premise, there are also several instances where it appears that the writers––or perhaps the author of the novel upon which the show is based––seem to be making allusions to the modern Chinese surveillance state. Here are a number of examples from the first 20 minutes of the first episode (minimal spoilers, since it is all revealed right away):
- The Peacekeeper Corps is essentially a small army acting independently of the rest of the government, with no oversight unless they “make a mistake.”
- Adjusting for purchasing power parity, China’s internal security expenditures are estimated to be more than double those of the US. (Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Domestic Security Spending: An Analysis of Available Data.” China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 4, The Jamestown Foundation. https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-domestic-security-spending-analysis-available-data)
- The Peacekeeper Corps’s leader hand picks a criminal on death row to take charge of the secret operations.
- This is similar to important individuals in China landing in jail and being pardoned based on political shifts, rather than on the basis of law.
- The threat they face is a foreign infiltration by Persian or Turkish terrorists.
- This is particularly poignant given the CCP’s false labeling of the Uighurs of Xinjiang as “terrorists” as justification for mass-incarceration and ethnic cleansing. The UN has estimated that upwards of 2 million people may be held in concentration camps in Xinjiang.
- Surveillance system: the leader of the Peacekeeper Corps warned the death row convict that attempts to abandon his mandate and flee the city would be futile because of the surveillance system comprising of watchtowers messaging each other with coded flags.
- China’s unprecedented use of technology in their surveillance has been used successfully to arrest people from leaving the country. On some occasions, people who were planning to fly to Beijing or other major cities to protest have also been prevented from taking any form of transportation, even if they had not publicly declared their purpose for travel.
- The initial raid on the foreigners’ position leads to 14 out of 15 of the would-be terrorists killed with impunity. No attempt was made to capture, interrogate, or investigate, despite the Peacekeeper Corp’s not even knowing the scale of their presence or their ultimate goal in the city.
- China’s court system famously has a 99% conviction rate. Even those who are innocent are encouraged by their lawyers to plead guilty, in the hopes of receiving a reduced sentence.
- There was a discussion that there would be too many people at the lantern festival to send police or guards to capture the remaining foreigner who escaped the raid, hence the need for the death-row convict to track him down. The hope was that a single undercover agent would prevent mass panic as compared to an army.
- The modern Chinese government makes extensive use of undercover agents. For example, a BBC reporter seeking to interview a non-CCP political candidate was tracked and prevented from meeting the candidate by around two dozen undercover agents who physically blocked the way, covered cameras, and used other tactics to force the BBC team to leave. (Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1HdCIW2Xtk)
- The Peacekeeper Corps cites as his motivation that “If people of Chang’an are killed, the guilt would never be wiped from my conscience.” The convict replies, “Is it really for the people?”
- This is more than a mere accusation having a hidden agenda: it is an accusation that the government is indifferent as to the livelihood of its people and only serves its own needs. Notably, Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue is where many were slaughtered at the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, and where the “Tank Man” incident occurred.
- Two brothers feature in the first episode: one was a corrupt smuggler and the other a model imperial officer: the corrupt one conducted illegal activity so that the brother could afford his noble station in the army.
- The reverse occurs in modern China: family members of politicians often help launder money and conduct illegal business so the politician is not implicated. The Panama Papers demonstrated this occurs even at the highest levels of government, with Standing Committee members’ relatives involved in illegal activity–– and even Xi Jinping’s family.
- Making and possessing maps of Chang’an by anyone other than the government is a crime in the show.
- In modern China, no foreigners are allowed to survey land to make maps, not even on a small scale. Any foreign company wishing to provide maps of China to their users must license them from one of 14 Chinese companies permitted to make maps of China––which only provide distorted and inaccurate maps. (Video explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9Di-UVC-_4)
- One of Right Chancellor Lin Jiulang’s past secret crimes was to collude with gangs to evict a district of people in the capital and level their homes to construct a government building.
- This is reminiscent of the mass-evictions of hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents, called “low-end population” by the CCP leadership, who were forced out of the city in the middle of winter to reclaim the land they occupied. (More information: https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2018/05/beijing-brutal-evictions-180527093537974.html)
While the Peacekeeper Corps are clearly the “good guys” in the show, there are hints that perhaps the screenwriters hoped to spark discussion to increase the scrutiny given to the CCP’s unfettered rule over China, especially as Xi Jinping’s ramping up of technological surveillance in all major cities.