March 9, 2014 6:44 pm

Why China’s leaders love to watch ‘House of Cards’

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The Netflix show’s depiction of US corruption confirms Chinese perceptions, says Kurt Campbell

Kevin Spacey in a scene from the Netflix original series House of Cards

If articles in the China-watching press are to be believed, we have recently learnt a lot about the viewing habits of senior Chinese leaders. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, reportedly considers the American classic The Godfather his favourite western cinematic indulgence. Wang Qishan, the former vice-premier of finance and now ultimate arbiter for discipline on the Communist party’s standing committee, is said to favour House of Cards. Mr Wang has purportedly told colleagues in Zhongnanhai, the cloistered leadership compound, to keep abreast of the Netflix hit. He apparently was so transfixed by early episodes that he instructed underlings to check the release date for season two.

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Political heavyweights from authoritarian regimes tend to favour muscular US movies such as Rambo and Scarface. Apparently, the Latin American strongman Manuel Noriega had a library filled with violent American VHS video tapes (before the era of DVDs).

But when members of the Chinese political class are asked about their American cinema favourites, it is movies about official corruption, political double-crossing and state violence that are most often mentioned. This western programming is complemented by a range of Chinese-produced shows whose plot lines resemble the twists and turns of Dallas, the 1980s show that followed the family feuds unfolding inside a fictitious Texas oil dynasty. Indeed, a number of western actors in China have found a niche playing roles as corrupt politicians, warmongering military officers or seductive female executives on the prowl.

What lies behind this fascination with political intrigue? It is possible that the Chinese view the portrayal of politics in House of Cards as quintessentially American – perhaps even an accurate depiction of the workings of US government. But of course, the American show is adapted from a BBC series from the 1990s. The lead character in the British version, Francis Urquhart, rises to become prime minister through behaviour that is if anything even more diabolical than that of Frank Underwood, his American counterpart.

Westerners often dismiss talk in the Chinese media of the country’s encirclement by the US as exaggerated political rhetoric. But in my experience, even the most cosmopolitan Chinese interlocutor harbours a deep ambivalence and uncertainty about Washington’s strategic intentions. It is widely believed that, beneath the surface, America’s vaunted democracy is rife with injustice and corruption.

What is also interesting about House of Cards – especially, perhaps, to Chinese viewers – is its sophisticated depiction of issues of the kind that complicate US-China relations. Examples include a naval stand-off between China and Japan, and frequent contretemps over currency and cyber security. Permeating the entire script is a nervous sense that China is on the rise and here to stay. Some episodes have the US president engaging with strong Chinese leaders, who themselves manoeuvre deftly behind the scenes.

The shows may also echo something familiar in the modern Chinese experience. The recent saga of Bo Xilai, his wife, his security chief and the death of a British businessman are eerily reminiscent of the dirty political deeds perpetrated by Underwood in his quest for power.

There is nothing particularly sinister in finding oneself bewitched by the conspiracies unfolding in House of Cards. President Barack Obama has revealed his own fascination with the show. He even confessed a pang of envy for the “efficiency” with which things get done in the fictional Washington of its creation. Still, I am waiting for a senior Chinese official to tell of being moved by the depiction of the human spirit in, say, 12 Years a Slave .

For those of us impatient to binge on another season of House of Cards, it is delightful to think that the Chinese leadership might share our plight. Many expect Underwood’s ambition of reaching the Oval office to be fulfilled in season three. If so then Beijing, like the rest of us, will be watching how he fares – and how he uses dark arts against the rising power across the Pacific.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and a former US assistant secretary of state

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