I am a big fan of the Netflix original series House of Cards, based on the British show of the same name. It’s about power-hungry US Congressman Frank Underwood (aka Kevin Spacey) who will stop at nothing in his race to the top. I loved the first series, but was really excited to see a plot-twist involving Sino-US relations in season two. Most contemporary American TV shows and movies deal with the Middle East as the center of foreign politics, so I was delighted to see China appear as a central issue.
The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos had a great article on China in House of Cards which you can read here. He writes: “When the “House of Cards” plot turns to China, the themes are contemporary and plausible: cyber espionage, rare earths, territorial disputes, and a cunning, meditative, libertine Communist Party plutocrat who plays on his connections at the highest ranks in Beijing. By the low standards of cinematic history, the depiction of China rings true enough—the show is a hit, with subtitles, in China—and it does a fine job of capturing a moment in time when it can be difficult to know if a man like the character Xander Feng, the emissary from Beijing, speaks for the leaders whom he purports to represent. Retiring the image of a monolithic Chinese government is one of the show’s innovations.”
As a student of China and International Politics, I was impressed at the breadth and accuracy of the issues presented in the show. Of course, House of Cards is ultimately a fictional program, and many of the specific tensions depicted in the show are invented, like the case of laundering Chinese money through casinos in the US to influence American politics. Nevertheless, the other issues addressed in the show, such as cyberwar, Chinese currency manipulation, and the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute, are indeed sources of tension in contemporary Sino-US relations. Furthermore, as Osnos said, House of Cards is extremely popular in China. After decades of blatantly orientalist depictions of Chinese people in American cinema and television, the tables have turned… House of Cards offers such a bleak and cynical (and maybe more realistic?) view of US politics that no one, neither the US nor China, emerges as a hero or a villain. Maybe this new portrayal of Asian and American characters is responsible for the show’s popularity in China?
According to Osnos: “It’s refreshing to watch a production in which it is the Americans, not the Chinese, who are expected to be beguiling, reflective—and fundamentally dangerous.”
Just to give you a taste of exactly how beguiling and dangerous Frank Underwood can be, here is one of his sinister quotes that I particularly enjoyed: “The Chinese are right about one thing: sometimes you have to sacrifice the one for the many.”