US drama House of Cards a hit in China

Cast member Kevin Spacey poses at the premiere for the second season of the television series "House of Cards" at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, California on February 13, 2014. The Netflix drama have made it the top American show str
Cast member Kevin Spacey poses at the premiere for the second season of the television series "House of Cards" at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, California on February 13, 2014. The Netflix drama have made it the top American show streamed by Sohu (the Chinese equivalent of Netflix), since its release onFeb 14. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The name Frank Underwood may be familiar to US audiences glued to the new season of Netflix drama House of Cards, but this unscrupulous fictional US Vice-President, played by Kevin Spacey, seems to have another avid fan-base - in China.

The twists and turns in this political drama about a ruthless Congressman willing to stop at nothing for success have made it the top American show streamed by Sohu (the Chinese equivalent of Netflix), since its release on Valentine's Day.

Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about nerds, is the second most popular on Sohu's weekly ranking, followed by the first season of House of Cards.

The success of the series comes at a time when Hollywood is starting to reach out to the large Chinese market through online video channels such as Sohu and Youku Tudou.

Already available in China are top shows such as The Walking Dead, Modern Family and most recently Ellen DeGeneres' talk show.

What is the secret of the success of House of Cards? Some say it plays into the Chinese narrative of dirty American politics while others point to how the second season is loaded with Chinese references.

While the actual US Secretary of State John Kerry was in China last Friday, calling for cooperation on North Korean denuclearisation and a roll back on aggressive steps taken by China over disputed territories, some Chinese viewers were racing through episodes on their laptops, encountering similar US-China themes.

In the second episode of the season for example, trade talks between China and the US stall after the fictional US Secretary of State intentionally makes a false step. And later episodes tackle the present-day issue of escalating tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea, cyber espionage and dealings with a corrupt Chinese businessman.

There is even a scene were Mr Underwood, who rises to the post of US Vice-President in this season, says to the Chinese businessman: "Mao is dead, and so is his China."

Said Sohu's chief executive Charles Zhang at a Beijing news conference: "When we chose to purchase the copyright of the show... we didn't know or expect that the second season had so much to do with China."

He addded that the inclusion of China in the show is probably due to the country's increasing importance on the global stage, so "Americans have higher interest" than before.

Staff writer on the series Kenneth Lin told the Wall Street Journal that the China plot line was conceived by the show's executive producer and head writer Beau Willimon, and could not be avoided.

"'House of Cards' is an exploration of power at the highest levels," said Mr Lin. "Today, you can't tell that story without considering China."

While Chinese viewers have had to acquaint themselves with the inner workings of the Senate and House, they are perhaps more familiar with the themes of power and corruption in government. After all, not so long ago, headlines in China were dominated by the purge of former Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai, and anti-graft news out of China continues to grab international attention.

But while they are lapping all this up, fans wonder if an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese might have the show come up against the great firewall of China.

Asks one Weibo user: "Will the second season be banned? Due to the depiction of sensitive issues such as sex scandals involving high level Chinese officials..."

While another user on the Twitter-like site speculates that the series will "disappear" after a few days, because it has "too much Chinese corruption".

Reports and online posts suggest that a following from the top brass in China has protected the show. They say Mr Wang Qishan head of the Communist Party's anti-corruption body is a fan and has "brought up" the show in recent hearings with other party officials.

But perhaps the show has survived the chop for another reason: however China may be depicted, the US and Mr Underwood's murky dealing in Congress definitely come off looking worse.

Note Mr Underwood's aside to viewers as he is being sworn in as Vice-President.

"One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name, democracy is so overrated."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg