House of Cards is a huge hit in China

A screenshot of Netflix's new design.

The second season of the Netflix series House of Cards was a big success here among American viewers, but it was also a huge hit in China. The popular Chinese video site Sohu bought the rights for the series, and the second season is now the most-watched American television series in China. House of Cards’ first season attracted 34 million views in China by fans intrigued by the dark side of the political process in Washington.

Many Chinese fans compare the show to the hit Chinese series The Legend of Zhen Huan, a story of a concubine living during the Qing dynasty who climbs her way up the court ladder to become Empress. She used the same types of unethical and scandalous tactics that the character of Congressman Frank Underwood does in House of Cards (It was announced last year The Legend of Zhen Huan will be exported to the US and re-cut into six television movies).

Both of these series have been left alone by China’s government censors because they explore the underbelly of the political process in another country or era. You would, of course, never see a television drama about modern current Chinese political figures going about their Machiavellian ways. Because House of Cards is about the U.S. political system, it’s fair game. 

Chinese who watch the show told me it makes them think about the complexities of what a democracy must be like. 

Chen Guanyin, 27, works in advertising. “I have a basic understanding of how the US political system works, but after watching this show, I’m more interested in how the House and Senate work and their roles.”

Shanghai resident Kevin Gao thinks the series exposes a side to the United States often hidden from view. “It reveals a real America: An exceedingly complex democracy haunted by its own demons yet optimistic to a fault,” writes Gao in an email,  “always trying to awaken from nightmares and self-delusion to be its most noble self."

Up to now, it appears the Chinese government has a similar take on the series. It’s allowed the series to remain available online, in its entirety, because it makes the U.S. government look just as corrupt and messy as its own. In essence, the series has become a useful propaganda tool for the Communist Party. And best of all, production costs are zero. 

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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