Handout still of the TV drama
'In the Name of the People' is centred around a team of anti-corruption investigators in present-day China © ImagineChina

Official corruption has always been taboo on Chinese television but a hit new show is tackling the subject head-on — and the star is cash.

In the Name of the People, in which crisp red Rmb100 notes are as ubiquitous as crooked officials with luxury cars and foreign mistresses, has become an online sensation, drawing comparisons with US streaming blockbuster House of Cards

The drama is set in present-day China under the rule of a president very much like Xi Jinping, who launched a crackdown on official corruption in 2012 that has ensnared hundreds of thousands of officials from powerful “tigers” to lowly “flies”. 

The series, episodes of which have garnered 1.7bn online views since its debut a month ago, according to research firm Ent Group, marks the first time a Chinese state TV drama has ventured into the fraught subject of high-level sleaze.

In 2004 China’s broadcast regulator explicitly banned discussion of corruption on TV for “potentially misleading audiences”. With central government officials almost uniformly portrayed as benevolent and fatherly on TV, depicting them as villains is unprecedented. 

Chen Shaofeng, vice-dean of the Institute for Cultural Industries at Peking University, says growing audience sophistication means there is now an appetite for a grittier narrative that better reflects the checkered reality of Chinese government.

“The series is very realistic,” he said. “Some characters are based on true stories.”

The heroes of the show, which was produced in co-operation with China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, are a team of anti-corruption investigators going up against gangs of “tigers” led by a shadowy villain occupying an unspecified deputy state-level post.

Many plot lines resemble real-life tales of officials felled by corruption probes under Mr Xi.

For example, the fictional investigators face the logistical problem of handling vast amounts of money. Mountains of cash feature in one episode, with notes stuffed between false walls, in suitcases and under mattresses.

In a country where the largest denomination note is Rmb100 ($16), making a $10m bribe weigh more than a tonne, such scenarios have cropped up frequently. In 2014 investigators detained Wei Pengyuan, deputy head of the National Energy Administration’s coal department. It took 16 machines to count the more than Rmb200m ($29m) he had stashed in his home, according to state news agency Xinhua. 

Li Yongzhong, deputy dean at the China Academy of Supervision and Discipline Inspection, where corruption investigators learn their trade, believes the series is tame compared with real life. “It shows much less than what actually happened during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign,” he says.

Mr Li reckons the series’ popularity “demonstrates that the public have a very strong urge to see clean politics in China”. 

However, just as House of Cards has found it hard to compete with reality — the intrigues at the heart of Donald Trump’s administration have upstaged even Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian president, Frank Underwood — In the Name of the People also risks being overtaken by events. 

As the 55-episode first series neared its finale on Friday, China’s war on corruption has taken an unexpected turn, with Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese tycoon, making allegations on social media that senior security officials control one of the country’s largest securities groups. 

Mr Guo’s role in a boardroom battle over Founder Securities led to his exile and the jailing of several of its executives in 2015. A few days after his allegations, the government broadcast a confession by a senior spy official seemingly aimed at undercutting Mr Guo’s claims. 

In the Name of the People is clearly aimed at buttressing Mr Xi’s authority in the run-up to China’s 19th Communist party congress this autumn.

But it will only work if China’s corruption fight sticks to the script.

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