On ‘House of Cards’ and China

So I figure by now, everyone has seen the second season of “House of Cards,” or at least enough that you know that China plays a big part in the season’s storyline (definitely more than Kate Mara did). And by big, I mean that Kevin Spacey had to deal with basically all of the issues you’ve seen in the headlines about China from the past year (except air pollution) within the span of 13 one-hour episodes. I’m not all that bothered about how China was portrayed because the show is basically about how horrible powerful people are, and it appears that the Chinese government isn’t all that bothered about it, either: As this WSJ article points out, it’s available for streaming uncensored here in China (and for free, too!).

This is pretty significant because, as we all know, China is very sensitive about its image. That’s not to say that anything negative will be automatically scrubbed once it gets within China’s borders, but any media content for public consumption will be scrutinized at some level, especially if it will reach a wide audience. “House of Cards,” as the article notes, was the most-watched U.S. show over the first weekend it aired, and the second season’s episodes have about 9 million combined views so far. Factoring in the first season, from March 2013, “House of Cards” has been viewed 24.5 million times. While well short of Chinese hit series (1 billion views for one popular reality show), 9 million is still a lot of people. Moreover, it’s airing at a time when U.S. movie studios are self-censoring their films (for things as minor as suggesting that a plague originated from China to as major as changing the nationality of the villains) so that they can be shown in China and draw a larger crowd.

Western media, quoting some Chinese viewers, have expressed surprise that the show is allowed to be shown. So what gives? One person quoted suggests that Wang Qishan, a top-ranking government official, is the reason — Wang is a fan of the show. Another reason, brought up in the WSJ article, may be that online video streaming just isn’t as heavily regulated as, say, foreign films. In fact, Internet censorship falls under the purview of multiple government departments, and video streaming is new enough, so it may just be that government officials are unsure of who has jurisdiction.

But is there even anything to censor? Look at who’s actually being portrayed negatively — a wealthy Chinese businessman. His type of people already have a bad reputation for being corrupt and ostentatious (“The show would have had a more realistic touch if Xander Feng was played by a fat and ugly actor instead of an attractive one,” as one microblogger put it in the South China Morning Post article above), so “House of Cards” isn’t doing anything outrageously offensive to Chinese people there. This is different to when Hollywood portrays Chinese people as the sneaky, mysterious antagonists who have ties to brutal mobsters and know kung fu. As for the politics of the show — cyber-theft, currency manipulation and disputes with Japan — Chinese viewers for the most part will realize that these issues are framed in the exact same way as they are in real life in the United States. This is hardly going to do any damage to the Communist Party. In fact, if the show damages anyone’s image, it’s the image of American-style democracy. Look at all the backstabbing, manipulation and murders going on, and as Frank Underwood notes, not a single vote was cast for him to become vice-president (or president).

OK, so “House of Cards” might not hurt the feelings of the laobaixing because it simply regurgitates prejudices that the Chinese are already aware of. But is the show an accurate portrayal of how China works? Even though the issues are ripped straight from the headlines, is China or Chinese businessmen really that evil? The short answer is probably! Government officials are notoriously corrupt, especially in their ties to super wealthy businessmen like Xander Feng. That’s just true in any country. Are Chinese businessmen trying to funnel money illegally into the United States through Native American casinos to try to influence U.S. politics? Well, I’m not sure exactly how they do it, but they probably are using their boatloads of money and ties to powerful, rich Chinese and Americans to influence policies in both countries. That’s just what rich people anywhere do to become richer. The WSJ interviewed one of the show’s writers, who apparently even consulted political experts on China. So I think it’s safe to take the Chinese angle with as much salt as you do with the show’s U.S. angle.

What’s probably not true, though, is Feng’s villa in China. It was insanely Chinese. Rich Chinese people these days don’t live on estates that look like 19th-century Chinese gardens; they live in luxurious apartments decked out with “Western” excesses and European-style villas in gated neighborhoods. They also don’t come with a harem of hot Chinese women giggling with each other nearby as you stroll around the serene, landscaped yard. Rich businessmen also usually have a family, preferring to keep their mistresses in an apartment in the city. Please, please, Hollywood, stop seeing China as it was 100+ years ago and come into the 21st century. China is gaudy, not exotic.

UPDATE 20 Feb. For a more in-depth look at just how unrealistic the Chinese aspects of the show were, ChinaFile has consulted old China hands such as Donald Clarke and Evan Osnos. Their responses are in line with my conclusion above: While the show offers a composite of the main issues cropping up in China, it has twisted them around for a more convenient storyline. But I still think the most unrealistic aspect of the show is Feng’s house and the Americans’ mispronunciation of the Chinese president’s name. Surely our top officials, who must deal with the Chinese leadership regularly, would know that “Qian” is pronounced like “chin,” not “kee-ahn” or however everyone on the show says it. (A more forgivable mispronunciation: Beijing. Practically everyone on the show turns the “j” into a “zh” sound, but I guess that’s just how Beijing is English-fied?)

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