As far as movies go, Game of Pawns is a bit of a stinker. But the true-life tale behind the FBI’s short film about a young American busted for selling information to the Chinese almost makes up for its clunky dialogue and China clichés.
Game of Pawns tells the story of Glenn Duffie Shriver. In 2010, Shriver pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide national defense information to officers of the People’s Republic of China and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. The story of how he got there forms the heart of the movie—and the FBI’s warning.“We’d like American students traveling overseas to view this video before leaving the U.S. so they’re able to recognize when they’re being targeted and/or recruited,” says a statement published Monday on the agency’s website.
The docudrama opens with some stock Oriental wisdom: “There is an old Chinese proverb: Life is like a game of chess, changing with each move,” intones the narrator. “And to win the game you must often sacrifice your pawns.” Enter Shriver. We see the American, then 24, greeting Chinese friends on campus (“What up dog?”) and partying with Chinese women. “It was going to be the best year of my life,” he says. “Shanghai was amazing. It fit me like a glove.”
Shriver’s zest for China got a little out of hand. Short on cash and unsure what to do with his life, he answers an online ad looking for essays on U.S.-China relations. A woman named Amanda, who would become his handler, pays him $120 for his thoughts on international affairs and praises his handiwork. After a few meetings, she takes him to meet her colleague, Mr. Tang, who keeps the flattery coming. “What impressed me most about your paper, Glenn, was your insight into the Chinese mind,” he tells him. “Most Westerners make no attempt to truly understand us.”
It is hard to know what the real Shriver was like at the time (though this 2012 Washingtonian profile offers some clues). But China expats will certainly see something familiar in the onscreen Shriver. Like many young people who come to study or work in China, this Shriver seems bright, curious and well-meaning. He also seems rather full of himself — willing to believe, for instance, that he, more than others, truly gets the place. Willing to believe that his insight, in the form of short essays, could be of genuine interest to powerful people. It is outrageously naive. But he was 24. And they were paying.
As his relationship with Amanda and Tang develops Shriver twice takes, but flunks, a U.S. State Department test. The Chinese give him stacks of U.S. cash nonetheless. Things escalate when they suggest he apply to work at the CIA. In the movie, Shriver hesitates: “What, um–what exactly are you asking me?” In the next shot, as he gazes out at the Shanghai skyline, he calls them back and makes his play: “I’m going to need $40,000 to start.”
The rest of Game of Pawns tracks his inevitable downfall, complete with a high drama scene at U.S. customs, a failed lie-detector test, and an on-plane arrest as he tries to flee. The short film’s timeline seems to skip some key details — it is a docudrama, after all — and makes no mention of U.S. espionage. We still do not know exactly how, or when, the authorities caught on to him. We do know he is doing four years in jail for accepting a total of $70,000 in return for information.
The film was posted on the FBI site along with a prison-cell interview with Shriver. He talks about how he was wooed by his handlers, and admits to being driven by greed. “You know when you’re having money thrown at you especially when you’re at a place like Shanghai,” he says. He then falls back on the film’s “pawn” metaphor: “You know we live in a very sheltered society,” he says. “And when you go out among the wolves, the wolves are out there.”
In the end, the effort comes off as cross between a public service announcement and a parody. And given the stereotypical view of China on display here, the people behind it, like Shriver, seem well-intentioned but unforgivably naive.