Tea Leaf Nation
Their Ears Are Burning
Chinese netizens love the new season of House of Cards -- even though it makes their country look terrible.
"Everyone in China who works on this level pays who they need to pay." Mild spoiler alert: These are the words of the fictitious Xander Feng, an influential Chinese billionaire on the Netflix series House of Cards, a show that follows the machinations of U.S. Rep. (and later Vice President) Frank Underwood to agglomerate power and crush whoever stands in his way. The phrase is also now viral on the Chinese Internet, which has proven surprisingly hospitable to the show’s second season, which debuted on Feb. 14. Despite having its arguably Sinophobic moments — in addition to Feng-as-villain, the show depicts a stateside Chinese businessman hiring both male and female sex workers, and a U.S. casino laundering Chinese money to fund a congressional super PAC — the show has Chinese social media users applauding what they believe is a largely accurate depiction of Chinese palace politics.
The attraction of House of Cards‘ second season — which has already received more than 9 million views in the first weekend compared to over 24 million for the first season, released March 2013 in China — appears two-fold. First and foremost, the show engages Communist Party corruption, elite infighting, and the often-outsized influence of the moneyed class with a directness that few domestic shows dare hazard. The colorful Feng, for example, alludes to scheming with members of the Chinese government to force a more liberal financial policy, not to mention bribing high officials outright. The result is a portrait of Chinese elite skullduggery convincing enough that one user wondered aloud in jest whether the show’s writers had planted an undercover agent in party ranks.
None of this means the show’s writers have spared U.S. policymakers in the new season. Chinese web users continue to praise House of Cards for providing what they believe is a glimpse into wrongdoing at the highest levels of U.S. government. One user lauded the show’s writers, who "really understand China-U.S. relations" and have also managed to "reveal how the U.S. government works." However overwrought that depiction may be, it’s convincing enough that Chinese media has reported that Wang Qishan, chief of the party’s internal discipline organization and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, has "repeatedly brought up" the first season series in talks with colleagues.
If Chinese netizens have a major concern, it’s that the show is a candidate for "harmonization," neo-Orwellian Chinese slang for online speech that offends authorities enough to trigger the censors’ invisible axe. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, one user urged viewers to "hurry up and download it," while a number of others wrote they had watched the show as quickly as they could in the expectation it would soon vanish. That’s because Chinese censors continue to come down hard on productions that cross an invisible red line. For example, when a Chinese series with the unfortunate English name Dwelling Narrowness aired in July 2009, it was a rare series set in contemporary China that tackled corruption head-on — until being pulled from most television stations before its conclusion. Here, House of Cards benefits from a double standard, whereby China’s government allows the online streaming of some U.S. content depicting violence or political content that would be intolerable in a domestic series.
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. On Sohu, one user declared that although House of Cards "doesn’t make China look great," much of what the show depicts is accurate. And, he continued, at least the series "takes China seriously."
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.