Among its most avid fans? Top leaders in China’s Communist Party.
It’s little surprise that a show devoted to political machinations would resonate in a country with a long history of back-stabbing leadership purges and inner-party struggle. Many in the Chinese public perceive their leaders as brazenly unscrupulous, with the only goal in governance to consolidate power and wealth.
But another reason the show may be a success here, some China experts in the United States fear, is because its unflattering portrayal of U.S. politics affirms Chinese government propaganda about American hypocrisy and bullying. In the show, actor Kevin Spacey plays Underwood, a congressional leader who is rejected for a Cabinet appointment, then claws his way to revenge and higher office.
“For Chinese, America is the big bugaboo in the world, so it makes sense that there’s interest in the intrigue and the power behind Washington,” said Michael Auslin, Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “That said, it’s probably not a great thing if this is the only side they’re seeing. . . . To truly understand U.S. politics, I would prefer they watch C-SPAN, but that’s probably not realistic.”
Since its release in both countries Friday, the show’s second season has ranked No. 1 among American shows streamed here by Sohu, the Chinese equivalent of Netflix and owner of the show’s Chinese streaming rights. (“Big Bang Theory” is No. 2 this week.)
According to Sohu, the largest proportion of the 24.5 million Chinese views from last season came from government-sector employees and residents of China’s capital, Beijing. Netflix does not release viewing statistics for its shows.
Like President Obama, who came out as a fan on Twitter last Friday, Wang Qishan, one of the seven most powerful leaders in China, is said to be particularly captivated, according to reports in Chinese media and officials with ties to his department, who asked to speak anonymously.
As head of China’s disciplinary committee, Wang is charged with keeping cadres in line and instilling discipline throughout party ranks — a portfolio somewhat similar to that of Underwood, the majority whip in “House of Cards.”
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency acknowledged last week that “a large number of our country’s senior leaders in government and enterprises and opinion leaders also highly recommend this show.”
“Of course people in China are curious, because you could never see this kind of show about the Chinese government. It would never get past the censors,” said one Beijing fan who attended a panel held by Sohu on Tuesday to discuss the new series.
She did not want her name published, saying she feared criticizing the government and — not unlike a possible “House of Cards” plot twist — finding herself “suddenly disappearing the next day.”
“Could you imagine if China ever did its own version of the show? Oh my God, the political characters would be even more ruthless and masterful at manipulation,” she said.
In interviews, some Chinese fans said they have trouble following certain story lines, which have involved obscure Senate procedures such as filibusters and quorums. Others who have watched without subtitles complain that the Southern accent of Spacey’s character is hard to understand.
Sohu officials said government censors did not interfere or review the new episodes before the company released the entire series online Friday, immediately after Netflix. But its in-house translators have raced to append Chinese subtitles, finishing Chinese captions for two new episodes a day since then. That hasn’t stopped some binge-watchers from racing ahead.
China plays a big role in the new season’s plot, which features a corrupt Chinese businessman trying to secretly influence the White House, U.S. concerns about China’s near-monopoly of rare earth metals, a tense naval standoff between China and Japan, and Chinese hacking practices.
The accuracy of such plot points has surprised many U.S.-China policy watchers. Some, having slogged through endless foreign policy conferences, said the debates between the fictional president’s advisers sound eerily similar to those in real-life Washington. (One adviser argues, for example, that China tends to respond to strength rather than weakness.)
Kenneth Lin, a writer for the show, said the team devoted many hours to reading up on China policy and talking to experts. But they didn’t do it in pursuit of Chinese viewers, he said.
“House of Cards is a show about power at the highest levels. If you want to tell that story with relevance today, you simply have to include China,” Lin said in an e-mail interview.
“I was not aware that Chinese leaders are watching the show,” he wrote. “I think that has a lot to do with the show’s ability to tap into something very true about power, ambition and human nature.”
But it might not be a good thing for U.S. democracy’s image in China, some analysts worry.
“As corrupt as D.C. may now be, it’s not nearly as bad as the show depicts it,” said Bill Bishop, editor of an influential newsletter called Sinocism. “But now millions of Chinese may come away thinking that U.S. politics are not that much cleaner than those systems closer to home.”
Comments on the Chinese version of Twitter indicate that some Chinese viewers already have.
“After watching ‘House of Cards,’ I see that the U.S. is also very dark. It’s the same everywhere. Where there are people, there is struggle,” wrote a user named “Desert Landwalk.”
“I’m just amazed that their propaganda ministry isn’t mad about this,” another user wrote.
Other observers argue that Chinese viewers are as sophisticated as any around the world and recognize fiction when they see it.
If anything, said Sohu chief executive Charles Zhang, the show is correcting Chinese misperceptions. Some Chinese mistakenly think the United States is a promised land that can do no wrong, he said. Others are all too willing to believe the worst about the United States.
But the truth, like art, is often more subtle, he said:
“It’s probably somewhere in between.”
Li Qi and Liu Liu contributed to this report.