Cyber security, currency manipulation, trade disputes over precious rare-earth minerals, maritime disputes with Japan, and (perhaps most of all) corrupt businessmen whose bedroom habits are kinky enough to make the Marquis de Sade look like a devout evangelical Christian—these are not only topics that have made recent headlines in China, but also major plot points in the latest season of the hit TV show House of Cards. And, just like us, it appears as if the Chinese just can’t get enough of Frank Underwood’s antics.
Sohu, one of China’s biggest online video service providers, officially bought the rights to show House of Cards in mainland China, and CEO Charles Zhang reports that the show is getting around three million views per day since its release last week. However, Zhang also confesses to being unaware at the time of purchase of how big a role China was going to play in the new season: “We didn’t know the second season would have so much to do with China—probably because of the increasing importance of China in global affairs,” Zhang told CNN. “Many Chinese people—including officials—are watching it now and we have had no problem.” Considering the fact that an exclusive license to costs five times as much as a normal license that permits other sites to stream the show, it’s fair to say that Zhang’s gamble (Sohu originally estimated that their target audience would begin and end with the Chinese elite) has been paying off.
Despite including such lines as “Everyone who works in China pays who they need to pay, and kills who they need to kill” – a line which, by the way, is currently blowing up on Weibo – the big dogs in China are apparently pleased with how their country is being portrayed on this wildly popular show. Zhang Guoqing of the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of American Studies made the following comment in China Daily:
“Through the series, we find the stereotype of China’s image has changed among US media and public. It surprises me that China is no longer a villain in the series, because many American movies previously tend to depict China as a cold war enemy like former Soviet Union. It is encouraging to see the demonization of China has lessen on US screens.
The show explores Sino-US trade, cyber attack and currency disputes, for example, and they even include an important clue throughout the whole season, which is unprecedented among American television series. There is divergence among US high-level decision makers on China policy in the story. It shows the US has gradually accepted the fact that China and the US are not only competitors, but also cooperators.
China and the US need a fresher and closer bilateral relationship. Though the series still reveal some ambiguous bias against China, it at last releases a signal that the public has an objective view on China’s development.”
Foreign Policy adds: “For now, Chinese authorities appear willing to forgive the show’s edgy moments, perhaps in what they view as a fair trade: occasional pot shots at China allowed, so long as the U.S. political system looks every bit as rancid. In fact, the treatment of China as the key U.S. rival may pay a backhanded compliment to Chinese citizens and apparatchiks alike.”
Apart from Zhang Guoqing, another big fan of the show is Wang Qishan, the CCP’s Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (in other words, Wang is the “disciplinary watchdog” for Xi Jinping). Wang allegedly has mentioned the show on more than one occasion in meetings with other officials. One Weibo netizen suspected, “I wonder if [House of Cards] is only approved because Wang Qishan was reported to have said he was a fan.”
Aside from possibly having friends in high places, much of the show’s success in China must go to the writers for simply doing their China homework. Political scientist Xiaobo Lu at Columbia University said that the show’s writers visited the campus in New York to meet with China experts, and writer Kenneth Lin told the Wall Street Journal that they “were certainly keeping our eye on what was happening (in China), and the happy result, I believe, is a story line that earns its relevance by resonating with the headlines.”
On the other hand, the folks at Chinafile brought together a few China experts, including the New Yorker’s China correspondent Evan Osnos and Sinica host/former member of rock band Tang Dynasty Kaiser Kuo, to weigh in on the accuracy of China’s portrayal in the show and debunk a few of the more implausible plot points. Among these points, it was pointed out that Beijing “would never approve” of a Sino-American joint venture in rare earth minerals and Kuo dismissed Xander Feng’s sexual exploits as “orientalist nonsense completely unnecessary to the plot.” Despite this, Osnos did find the character of Raymond Tusk very realistic, or at least his claims to authority for simply being in China a long time:
“…I’ve always been impressed with how the Tusk character has mastered the very authentic habit of constantly invoking his ’35 years of dealing with the Chinese’ as his trump card in conversations. Any China hand has used a version of this line before, in an attempt to squelch some bad idea or another, and we should be reminded of how it sounds.”
While China’s portrayal in House of Cards may not be 100% to-a-T accurate, the writers have undoubtedly struck a chord with Chinese audiences: This may be because the show’s Chinese characters are as developed and nuanced as Frank and Claire, or as Michael Auslin at the American Enterprise Institute puts it: “For Chinese, America is the big bugaboo in the world, so it makes sense that there’s interest in the intrigue and the power behind Washington.”
If you were to ask us, however, we’d say it’s most likely because they revel in the same guilty pleasure of watching Frank cut down his opponents one by one like the boss VP that he is.