During a state visit to the United States in 2015, President Xi Jinping publicly dismissed the comparison of China’s far-reaching and eye-popping anti-corruption campaign with the hit American television drama House of Cards.
In China, Xi said, there is no power struggle, no behind-the-scenes political intrigue. Yet, when In The Name of the People, a corruption-centred political television series drama started in March, luring billions of viewers each week, media outlets were quick to compare it to the Netflix series.
Appalling and applauded
The 55-episode drama is China’s latest effort to tap into pop culture to showcase its resolution and achievements in the extensive corruption crackdown that Xi launched when he came into power in 2012.
The show was an immediate hit, developing a reputation as the hottest thing on Chinese screens both locally and globally. Its ratings recently reached 7%, breaking a ten-year record for China’s domestic television drama market.
On just one of the licensed online viewing platforms, iQiyi, it has reaped almost 5.9 billion views.
Viewers are alternately appalled by and applauding scenes of a sort rarely seen in China: a corrupt Party cadre kneeling and weeping for pardon when mounds of banknotes hidden in his secret villa are uncovered by the protagonist, a competent young prosecutor; a corrupt local judge caught in bed with a blonde foreign prostitute, paid for by a businesswoman.
Such high-level dirt has been the source of much gossip in China, but has never been so vividly been depicted.
China’s cultural production is highly controlled and heavily censored. The Party’s omnipotent media watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) dictates what Chinese audiences are to watch.
In the Name of the People has made it onto screens because it’s more on a political mission than a market-driven cultural product. The show is commissioned and financed by China’s national prosecutor’s office, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, at the cost of 120 million yuan (US$17.4 million), which is twice the average of other locally-produced TV shows.
A public official from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate told Chinese media they were given instructions from the media watchdog to promote “positive energy” by showcasing the resolution of China’s anti-corruption campaign, rather than the scale of corruption in the country.
Entrusted with this political mission, leading actors in the show have proven only too eager to pass on the “positive energy”: they have overacted, essentially ruining the show in artistic terms according to some critics on social media.
But this kind of defect hasn’t stopped excited viewers from watching the show for its political main theme, which is a rarity in China in recent years. A decade ago, anti-graft dramas were common, but in 2004 they were banned by the authorities for being “low quality”.
In the absence of political drama, what has prevailed in China are television shows about family ethics, about Chinese soldiers’ heroic fight against Japanese in the second world war, or emperors and their concubines in the imperial palace of the Qing dynasty.
But as China’s political landscape changes, so, too, does its on-screen entertainment.
Television has been and remains a powerful medium in most countries for mass political manipulation since the 1950s, and it remains so today, despite the media’s ever-changing ecology.
In China, television is hands-down the preferred battleground for garnering public support and influencing public opinion in favour of Xi’s corruption crackdown.
Since 2016, grief-stricken corrupt officials have been seen confessing their crimes in tears on primetime news shows and in documentaries produced by the government’s corruption watchdog agency.
Now, the government has opted for entertaining television dramas aimed at a mass audience. Apart from the current hit, 11 additional primetime dramas about China’s corruption sweep are expected to hit screens in millions of households later this year.
This deluge can be expected to shape the public narrative in China about the Xi administration’s anti-graft campaign and its grand achievements.
For now, it has become obligatory to watch In the Name of the People in China. That’s actually literally the case in some cities where Party cadres are required to watch and write reviews of no less than 1,500 words.
Perhaps others watch it in the hope of learning how to survive political power struggles. And the whole nation seems to be following the show to catch up on trending topics of national relevance, both online and offline.
But public discussion about the drama appears to be herded towards the government’s preferred direction: positive. On Zhihu, a Quora-like knowledge-sharing Chinese website, which has more than 20 million users, of 169 answers in the thread “how to comment on In the Name of the People”, 145 answers have been removed. Most were taken down for being “politically sensitive” according to the website.
The show is unprecedented in China because it tackles the delicate matter of official corruption. But what and how much is revealed on the show are dictated not by viewer interest or the market.
The show’s title echoes the Party’s official rhetoric of “serving the people”. Unsurprisingly, this has been a decades-long catchcry in media narratives, which are themselves told to “serve the party”.
Perhaps the comparison to House of Cards is a long bow after all.