Kevin Spacey as US Congressman Frank Underwood in a scene from the Netflix original series, House of Cards. (AP Photo/Netflix, Melinda Sue Gordon)
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
In depicting US politics as just as vicious, if not more, sociopathic than its Chinese counterpart, House of Cards delivered a sweet Valentine’s Day gift to the Chinese government. The show handed the Chinese state an instant victory when the protagonist, a seasoned US politician, declares democracy “so overrated.” Even coming from the mouth of a villain, this is a verdict the Chinese state, which is always hoping to elevate its political model at the expense of others, is happy to hear.
But House of Cards delivers more than a corrupt US political system and an incredulously susceptible and incompetent U.S. president: it depicts a China capable of tipping the power balance in Washington. This is an implicit acknowledgement of China as the key US rival, a compliment and, no doubt, even an honour to many nationalistic Chinese viewers and party apparatchiks. Indeed, to my knowledge, this is the first time ever that a major U.S. production has put China at the center of its narrative, granting real power to a Chinese character. As one Chinese viewer put it: House of Cards “doesn’t make China look great,” but at least it “takes China seriously.”
China factors heftily in the second season of the show [spoiler alert], with a Chinese princeling functioning as a pivotal character. Never mind that the Chinese character is a seedy one, his ability to influence Washington politics is an instant upgrade of the usual images of meek and peripheral Chinese characters in most US films and entertainment shows. Kenneth Lin, a staff writer on the show who is credited with writing the episode introducing the corrupt Chinese businessman, got it right when he commented that “a character like Xander Feng is a fairly new arrival to the world stage.” The Chinese have come a long way in overcoming the image of powerlessness and deprivation.
The irony is that as beneficial as this image transformation may be for China’s yearned-for soft power, only Hollywood has the power to bring it about. Under the thumb of a compulsively censorial state, China’s own entertainment industry can’t even make use of its own best material. China’s great variety of home-grown political intrigue could make for serious entertainment. Disgraced politician Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, whose real life murder-conspiracy corruption case riveted the world, could definitely give the Underwoods a run for their money, but the Bo-Gu story remains taboo.
If the show has pleased Chinese viewers happy to see their country’s stature magnified, it must also be a hit with the Hollywood execs so intent on penetrating the Chinese entertainment market. House of Cards might have just given them a new China Formula: Take a current, headline-grabbing, and sensational drama, add a dab of Orientalism that weaves economic and political conspiracy on a global scale, throw in some sex and violence, and you’re in business.
Even better, despite that House of Cards is spiced with what would normally be considered offensive sexual perversion ranging from erotic asphyxiation to lesbianism, voyeurism, and threesomes, it has the Chinese censors gleefully on board. Only a decade ago, the censors banned on Chinese primetime TV the much tamer domestic brand of political drama involving crime and corruption.
Why the change of heart?
Turns out that the commissars’ scrutiny of media content, with its repeated campaigns against sex, violence, and political transgression, is not really as much about morality as it is about politics. While the showcasing of home-grown transgressions is carefully guarded, stories that put the American political system in an unflattering light get the green light. US politics portrayed as devoid of principles and humanity is the best antidote to criticism of political corruption in China that the Chinese state can ever hope for. Sex and political violence do not transgress so long as they are part of a story that bolsters China’s global standing.
And speaking of a global landscape, there is a curious parallel here in the transformation of political dramas from across the Pacific Ocean. Chinese TV dramas moved from the righteous anti-corruption of the 1990s to the more cynical officialdom drama of the new millennium, which have a large following among the civil servants who see such dramas as manuals for upward mobility. Similarly, American political dramas have moved from the triumphantly moralistic era of The West Wing to the sinister ethos of House of Cards -- which is essentially a US version of Chinese officialdom drama. Incidentally, Sohu reported that Chinese government-sector employees constituted the show’s largest viewing block during the show’s first season. And according to Xinhua News Agency, a large number of senior state leaders and enterprises and opinion leaders recommended the show. It does not hurt that, while it may call attention to the dark cloud over China’s politics and economy, House of Cards has shown no interest in any of the human rights-related issues that featured so frequently on The West Wing.
The Chinese have always been fascinated with the cannibalistic quest for power in palace intrigues showcased, albeit in a far tamer form, on Chinese primetime TV’s enormously popular historical dramas. It should come as no surprise that contemptuous rancidness in the give-and-take-and-extortion business of Washington, DC should mesmerize the Chinese viewers. After all, there might be some pedagogical value in learning the nuts and bolts of the US political system so long as one does not take the hyperventilating world of House of Cards at face value. But then cynicism is exactly what the Chinese viewers feel about politics in general. It is true that politics is dirty no matter where you go, but a crucial distinction exists: as a Chinese viewer expressed his amazement that a show trashing US politics is allowed to be made in the US, the fact of the matter is that a show highly critical of the US can be made and screened and debated in the US but a similar show about Chinese politics has yet to emerge in China.
Dr. Ying Zhu is a professor in and Chair of the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island-CUNY.
This article was originally published on ChinaFile, an online magazine from Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.. Republished with permission.