From the wild popularity of shows such as “24,” with super-agent Jack Bauer out to save the world, to the popular sequels of the end-of-the-world “Transformers” movie, American television series and movies have always played well in China. The latest craze among entertainment-hungry Chinese is the political drama series “House of Cards,” produced by Netflix and starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a congressional leader using all means necessary to consolidate his political power and reach the presidential office.
The “House of Cards” the Chinese are busy watching is the American version of a 1990 BBC miniseries based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, a British politician. Following the February 14 release by Sohu, a Chinese online video platform, the second series of 13 episodes had more than 30 million views – more than the first season’s current total. The second season depicts a Chinese billionaire named Xander Feng, who intends to influence American politics.
Why is the show so popular in China? Although a work of fiction, the series may appeal to the Chinese desire for truth, revealing the greed and corruption behind the world’s most powerful nation and providing China’s nationalistic America-bashers with a great sense of schadenfreude. For others, the show may provide the catharsis needed by Chinese increasingly subjected to daily reports of greed and corruption on their own soil following heavy crackdowns since President Xi Jinping took office. Finally, with the introduction of Feng, the show may appeal to Chinese curiosity concerning how the world’s current emperor intends to interact with the sole challenger to the throne.
Yet in an era of widespread and intense censorship by Chinese authorities, how long will it be before Beijing attempts to shut it down? Officials may allow the show to continue its run, as long as it depicts American politics as corrupt and reveals the weaknesses of a democratic system, and allows them to monitor the reaction of their citizenry to issues raised on the television show. But should the producers begin to offend the sensibilities of Chinese leaders, expect some form of censorship and the subsequent race by netizens to continue watching the show from an alternate platform.
Spacey, a producer of the show, said in an interview with Sohu that the China subplot was introduced to reflect the emerging prominence of Asia in the coming decade – a statement dear to the hearts of every proud Chinese citizen. Spacey added though, that China “will experience positive transformation and change,” a comment which when viewed through the eyes of China’s current leadership and coming from Frank Underwood could be understood as a clever challenge or warning to Beijing.