The award-winning US political drama House of Cards became one of the most talked-about TV shows in China this week as the 13 episodes of its second season racked up more than eight million views on Sohu.com by Tuesday morning.
The show was released on Friday on Sohu, the same day as its debut on Netflix’s online video-streaming service in the US. It became an instant hit as Chinese fans said they were enthralled by the show’s flawless acting and a dramatic storyline that heavily featured US-China relations.
Chinese viewers said they were surprised that the show got the green light to air in China despite a season focusing on sensitive topics including Chinese cyber-theft, currency manipulation and China’s dispute with Japan in the South China Sea.
“I wonder if it’s only approved because Wang Qishan was reported to have said he was a fan,” a microblogger suggested on Sina Weibo.
Wang Qishan, head of the Communist Party's anti-corruption body and a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, is a fan of House of Cards, according to the Hong Kong-based magazine Phoenix Weekly.
The magazine report said Wang highlighted the role of the “party whip” in ensuring party discipline in the legislature. Wang, known for being tough on graft, has been accelerating his efforts to crack down on corruption since he took over the reins of the party’s anti-graft body last year, a South China Morning Post report revealed.
“What would our leaders think of the huge differences between US democracy and the political system of China, as the show suggested?” wrote another microblogger.
“Watch it before they censor the show,” many others suggested, worrying that the media buzz created by the show would attract unwanted attention from China’s censors.
The scheming US Vice-President Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, has to deal with a corrupt Chinese billionaire Xander Feng in the second season. Feng is played by Canadian actor Terry Chen.
Feng, whose grandfather was a revolutionary who fought alongside Mao Zedong, claims to enjoy a close relationship with China’s standing committee in the show. In one conversation Underwood has with Feng, Underwood says, “Mao is dead, and so is his China.” Many netizens worried this could offend China’s leadership, who is still struggling to deal with Mao’s legacy.
“The show would have had a more realistic touch if Xander Feng was played by a fat and ugly actor instead of an attractive one,” a microblogger commented.
Ma Ke, a Sohu executive responsible for buying US TV shows for the video site, told Chinese website Huxiu in an 2013 interview that Sohu had purchased the licence to exclusively air the first two seasons of the show in China through Sony Pictures Television, the distribution partner of House of Cards.
An exclusive licence to air a US TV show, as in the case of the House of Cards, costs five times than a normal license that also allows other platforms to air the show, Ma said. He admitted that Sohu had purchased the show in the hopes of drawing China’s elite viewers.
Sohu’s budget to purchase US TV shows was US$80 million in 2013, according to the Huxiu report.
Meanwhile, mainland publishers, who seem eager to cash in on the popularity of the show, are launching Chinese copies of House of Cards, the original novel by British author Michael Dobbs. The US show is an adaptation of a BBC miniseries of the same name that was based on the book by Dobbs.
Major Chinese online book vendors like Dangdang and JD.com, are taking pre-orders from buyers and have promised that books will be delivered as soon as Friday.
“This show has been repeatedly recommended by Wang Qishan and Barack Obama,” touted an advertisement on Dangdang.com promoting the coming book. “Read the book on which the hottest political drama of last year was based.”