Why ‘Game of Thrones’ is actually dangerous for China’s rulers


Beware the spoilers below. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

So it turns out the Chinese state TV's recent broadcast of "Game of Thrones" was an edited mess, according to disgruntled netizens quoted by the South China Morning Post. The censors, it appears, hacked away at the show's notorious gore and sex. Here's the SCMP:

"I estimate that they cut about twenty minutes," one disgruntled Weibo commentator wrote after the first episode re-aired on Sunday. "The story feels discontinuous… [When they began re-airing it], my first reaction was 'This can’t be!' Then my second reaction was, 'My God, what a mess.'"

"So they've cut about a quarter of all the fight scenes, then a quarter of the nude scenes," another netizen quipped. "I guess that's okay if all you want to watch is a medieval European castle documentary."

But "Game of Thrones" is not just a "medieval European castle documentary." Nor is the HBO drama beloved around the world purely for its frequent battles and orgies. Beyond its ice zombies and shrieking dragons, the show offers an engrossing meditation on political power and personal loyalties, drawn sometimes from real historical events and suffused with real lessons for nations and governments. Indeed, if China's censors watched more closely, they could find other reasons to keep on cutting.

The myth of the unified, centralized state
For a country of its size, China can tell a particularly strong narrative of political unity. Generations of rulers in Beijing have linked their legitimacy and right to govern to a shared past, stretching back thousands of years -- maintained, even, by a continued tradition of imperial exams -- into realms of myth. In one view, the ruling Communist Party is just another dynasty, dependent on the aura of this linked history. To prove its claims over the South China Sea, Beijing still points to the maps of Ming dynasty navigators. To stress its sovereignty over the far-western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, both home to restive populations, Beijing invokes the legacy of the Qing dynasty's conquests.

In "Game of Thrones," the centralized state -- the united Seven Kingdoms of Westeros -- is an entity balanced on a thread, forever vulnerable to the whims of the power-brokers of the land. The TV show compels you to root for separatists -- the charismatic, stoic Starks of the North -- who are trying to split away from the tyranny of the capital. Moreover, the show reinforces over and over in the viewer's mind just how unnatural and manufactured the centralized authority of a high king is. We learn that Joffrey, an odious princeling who assumes the throne after the death of his putative father, Robert Baratheon, is actually the product of incest among the powerful Lannister clan. Joffrey's rule as monarch is preserved only through the cynical alliances made by his grandfather Tywin Lannister, a brutally Machiavellian figure in the series. In "Game of Thrones," after all, earning the right to rule is a game. And the kingdom's subjects -- its "small-folk" -- are all hapless pawns within it. That's not quite the message China's authoritarian leadership -- beset by its own palace feuds and tales of vice and corruption -- would want internalized through its own realm.

The not so Great Wall
One of the few fantastical features of the Westerosi landscape is the Wall, a massive sheet of ice that separates the realms of men from the wild "free folk" and more terrifying creatures who stalk the glacial unknown. It's modeled perhaps on Hadrian's Wall, the stone defense erected by the Romans in Britain to keep out the fearsome Picts and other unconquered tribes.

But the Wall also echoes the Great Wall, China's vast, ancient lines of fortifications that snake wondrously through mountains and can supposedly be seen from space. The Great Wall in a certain sense defined China -- less as a practical national boundary and more as a kind of organizing principle, a cultural landmark. It was less about rebuffing marauding barbarians -- who would have no problem invading and settling China through the centuries -- and more about distinguishing the world that existed behind and beyond its parapets and towers. In recent years, the structure has also lent itself to another metaphor: China's Great Firewall, the barriers put up by the country's Internet police, blocking free access to information on the Web.

Despite its epic size, the Wall in "Game of Thrones" is not all it's cracked up to be. On one level, as the wildlings eventually tell us, it does more to define those kept within its defenses than without, marking a land where commoners have to "bend the knee" to the hierarchies of the feudal world. It is defended by a misbegotten pack of scoundrels, rapists and rogues. And it is easily breached (not unlike China's Internet controls). Some of civilization's greatest monuments are also signs of a culture's real weaknesses rather than its strengths.

Dragonstone or Taiwan?
The most storied noble house in "Game of Thrones" is that of the Targaryens, the silver-haired, dragon-riding family that begins the show in exile across the sea. We learn that the Targaryens once ruled all of Westeros until a rebellion, punctuated by a few hideous slaughters, chased them to a small, craggy isle off the coast called Dragonstone. Not long after the last of the Targaryens flee the island for more distant hideaways, the rock becomes the fortress of Stannis Baratheon, another lord who thinks himself the true ruler of Westeros. Dragonstone exists in the series as a permanent reminder of dissent, brooding sullenly off the shores of the realm.

It doesn't take a tremendous imaginative leap to see a parallel to China. In 1949, Mao Zedong's Communists defeated the nationalist forces, the remnants of which fled en masse to the island of Taiwan. To this day, Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province, while Taiwan -- the Republic of China -- in theory claims suzerainty over all of the Chinese mainland. The story of "Game of Thrones" makes one thing clear, though: It's the dissidents from the renegade island who will ultimately reshape the balance of power on the mainland.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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