China’s ‘House of Cards’ hits the TV screen as Xi Jinping whips his cadres
Gritty prime-time television drama pulls no punches about greed and power – with the Communist Party’s blessing
A Chinese government official is caught in bed with his blonde mistress. A Communist Party cadre stuffs his home with banknotes. And a “deputy state-level” leader fiercely resists a disciplinary probe.
The star-studded series In the Name of People has proved popular with viewers and critics alike, receiving 270 million views by Wednesday for the first 12 episodes out of 55 in total on Iqiyi.com, one of the websites and television channels licensed to show the series.
The series is built around fictional internal power plays within the ruling Communist Party as well as the lifestyles of senior officials, although it ultimately hails the anti-corruption campaign of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his key ally, Wang Qishan.
What is extraordinary about the series is that has broken China’s decade-long ban on anti-corruption-themed dramas being aired in prime-time slots and it is the first television drama to paint a “deputy state-level” party leader as a villain.
It doesn’t go as far as House of Cards, the American political drama starring Kevin Spacey as the president, but it has gone further than any mainland political drama to date.
China’s media watchdog decided to curb the graft-themed programmes in 2004 because they exposed extensive details about corruption, even imaginary ones, which Chinese officials thought could undermine public confidence in the party.
The production and broadcasting of In the Name of People on prime-time screens, therefore, reflects Beijing’s growing confidence that it is able to control the anti-corruption narrative and convince the public that one-party rule can also be clean.
The crackdown on corrupt officials and the incessant calls for party members to be above reproach has been a hallmark of Xi’s first five-year term as party general secretary.
Since his ascent to power in late 2012, an estimated 1.2 million officials have been punished for corruption, including the chief of staff of his predecessor Hu Jintao and two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission who served together.
In a speech in September 2015 in Seattle, Xi said his fight against “tigers and flies” – big and small players – reflected of the public’s will and was not a political purge.
“There’s no power struggle, nor anything similar to House of Cards,” Xi said.
The party’s disciplinary watchdog under Wang, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), has already made two documentaries hailing the campaign.
While the documentaries were eye-popping – featuring toppled provincial officials tearfully confessing in public – the powerful CCDI is trying to grab the attention of the public, especially young people who prefer to watch TV dramas online rather than dry political documentaries on state television.
In June 2015, a team from the CCDI propaganda department visited the Film and Television Centre of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, demanding more anti-corruption TV series and movies to be made, according to Fan Ziwen, a deputy director at the centre, which was a producer of In the Name of People.
Zhou Meisen, a renowned writer of political novels and dramas, was chosen to write the script.
In an interview with Beijing Daily, Zhou said unlike his previous anti-corruption dramas, the production struggled to find backing from state-owned companies.
Series’ director Li Lu said the big state-owned enterprises were not willing to invest because of the long absence of successful anti-corruption dramas in the market and the sensitivity of the theme.
In the end, the show was bankrolled by five private companies, none of which had invested in a television series before, Li said.
Its portrayal of power groups inside the party, such as “secretary gang” and the “political legal affairs gang”, echo real fallen political factions led by former president Hu Jintao’s disgraced personal secretary Ling Jihua and former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, once one of the country’s most powerful men.
A wall of stacked banknotes reminds the audience of Wei Pengyuan, a former deputy director of the coal department at the National Energy Administration, who hid cardboard boxes brimming with cash stuffed under a bed mattress in his otherwise empty apartment in Beijing.
Many lines from the drama have found their way into common usage, such as “people toast him not because he is a good person, but because he has power”.