Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Frank Underwood?

Communist discipline chief Wang Qishan may be taking the wrong lessons from the TV series 'House of Cards.'

Getty Images
Getty Images

China’s top corruption watchdog may be getting a slightly warped view of U.S. politics. A Dec. 5 article from Hong Kong-based Phoenix media quotes an unnamed "knowledgeable" source saying that Wang Qishan, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee and chief of the Communist Party’s internal disciplinary body, has "repeatedly brought up" the U.S. Netflix series House of Cards in recent meetings with other party officials. The show depicts a fictitious majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, played by Kevin Spacey, who relishes destroying the lives and reputations of his political opponents.

Assuming the Phoenix report is accurate — Chinese media citing anonymous sources have been egregiously wrong before — Wang may be taking the wrong lesson from the successes of the show’s protagonist. The article says that Wang "attached great importance" to the role of whip, which the article notes helps to maintain "party unity." That’s surely an attractive proposition to Wang, whom FP named a 2013 Global Thinker on Dec. 9 for trying to fight corruption at the Communist Party’s highest levels. The fictitious Underwood no doubt knows how to keep his own (Democratic) party colleagues in check, but he does it through treachery, not the rule of law, and only because it enables him to burnish his career while exacting revenge for perceived slights. 

Wang’s far from the only Chinese person following House of Cards. Episodes of the show’s first (and thus far only) season have received over 16 million views on Chinese video portal Sohu. Data from that site shows viewers over the past 24 hours mostly hailing from the government or corporate sectors, with a plurality tuning in from the capital, Beijing. One can only hope most of them approach the series as the dark comedy it’s meant to be, and not as an instruction manual.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University. Twitter: @dwertime

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