Sino-US Relations in House of Cards Season Two

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.

House of Cards

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.” 

House of Cards Kevin Spacey 


Lecture Notes: John Garnaut on The Rise of Xi Jinping and the Destruction of Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai on Time

A few weeks ago, I attended a fascinating lecture at my school on recent power politics in China. The talk was given by John Garnaut, a China media correspondent and author of The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo. (You can read more about him and see the details of the program I attended here.) Basically, he talked about the Bo Xilai scandal and trial that took place in summer 2013. It’s quite complicated, so if you want some more details, you can read about it on the Wikipedia article on Bo here, or check out this useful timeline from BBC of the most important events. If you’re a fan of political drama and intrigue, look no further than the Bo Xilai case: truly, the best writer in Hollywood could not have cooked up a more deliciously twisted storyline!

Even though my understanding of this very complex scandal is quite limited, I thought that Garnaut managed to make the topic pretty accessible and also talked about some very interesting and more general aspects of Chinese politics which I will discuss here.

As Garnaut pointed out, Chinese politics are often viewed by outsiders as an inaccessible and impenetrable “Black Box”. Generally speaking, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP and other government officials are selected in a highly secretive process, and, in fact, most of Chinese politics operate within this very opaque system. Garnaut argues that the Bo Xilai scandal was a game-changer in Chinese politics because it was carried out mostly in the public eye with a higher degree of transparency; not because the policies of the CCP have changed, but because the landscape of China’s politics itself has evolved and transformed. China has a huge and active community of netizens who, despite the efforts of Chinese censors, are accessing twitter and Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform. By doing so, these netizens are exposing and engaging with political scandals (and creating a total PR nightmare for the Propaganda Ministry!) Even five years ago, this level of citizen engagement would have been unfathomable in Chinese politics. Garnaut even pointed out that in some cases, netizens were more aware and knowledgeable of the details of the Bo Xilai case than former President Hu Jintao! Garnaut insisted that social media has really widened the bandwidth of information gathering in China, and it would be impossible to put the Bo Xilai scandal back into the “Black Box” of Chinese politics.

Garnaut also discussed the factional divisions within Chinese politics, which, although fascinating, are highly complex and intricate. Given the transparency issues, it is hard to get a sense of the web of connections, or 关系 (guanxi) that determines one’s fate in the political arena in China. I’m not really going to delve into the issue of factionalism too deeply here, except to say that Garnaut referred to former President Jian Zemin as “The Godfather” of Chinese Politics, which I though was a humorous and accurate characterization!

The latter portion of Garnaut’s lecture focused on current President Xi Jinping, who assumed office in March of 2013. He is quickly emerging as a departure from previous Chinese politicians with an increased attention to the PLA. As Garnaut said: “If Bo Xilai’s fall redefined Chinese society, Xi Jinping’s rise redefined it yet again”.

I found Garnaut’s talk quite insightful and enlightening especially given the complexities of the issues he dealt with. I haven’t read his book yet, but it is definitely on my list!

“Red Star Over China” by Edgar Snow – Book Review

In one of my favorite classes during my time as an undergraduate studying East Asian Studies, I was required to read Red Star Over China by Edgar Snow, a classic account of the American journalist’s months spent with the Chinese Red Army in 1936. If you want some more information on the book itself, check out this brief synopsis from the Foreign Affairs website.

by Edgar Snow

by Edgar Snow

Notably, Edgar Snow was the first Westerner to interview Chairman Mao. He became historically significant as an outsider who was granted privileges and information during a turbulent time in Chinese history. Snow outlined his findings in his “classical account of the birth of Chinese Communism”, which claimed the authority of investigative, objective journalism, and was crucial in shaping the Western understanding of China and Chinese Communism.

Snow does display some signs of objectivity throughout his work, especially when he describes Zhou Enlai’s thoughts on the journalist himself: “I have a report that you are a reliable journalist, friendly to the Chinese people, and that you can be trusted to tell the truth…It does not matter that you are a not a communist…You can write about everything you see”. By demonstrating that the Chinese Communists valued truth and were tolerant of different ideologies (tenants of the brand of Enlightenment Liberalism upon which the United States were founded), Snow attempts to create sympathy for the Communist cause in the West. With this statement, he also implies that his account is uncensored, and thus alludes that the information he provides in the following pages is accurate and objective.

Although the author attempts to be objective by asking tough, expository questions throughout the work, “Red Star Over China” must be interpreted with an understanding of Snow’s biases, which arise because he does not adequately evaluate the answers he is supplied with by the Communist leaders, the peasants, the members of the army, and from his own personal experiences. Snow compares the Red army to the White army by interviewing mainly victims of the White army and mainly soldiers in the Red army, and depicting mainly the positive aspects of the Red army and the negative aspects of the White army (unfortunately for Snow, comparing apples and oranges is rarely a convincing strategy). He quotes from members of the Red army: “The Red Army helps the poor”, “It is not like the White districts, where poor people are slaves of the landlords and the Kuomintang” “He [a Red soldier] was fighting for the revolution, which would free the poor”. Of course, utilizing motivational quotations and gross generalizations is not sufficient evidence to prove that the Red army, and by extrapolation the Communist cause in China, is intrinsically “better” (i.e., more humane, more concerned with the general welfare of Chinese citizens, more logical or practical than other ideologies) than the Kuomintang and feudalism, or any other combination of army and government. Despite this, Snow’s testimonies and reasoning did indeed foster a significant amount of sympathy for Chinese Communism.

Snow’s partialities are possibly most apparent in his descriptions of Mao Zedong, of whom he thought very highly. He admired Mao’s intellect, ideology, willingness to live in the exact same conditions as his troops and comrades, talent as a military strategist, charm and appeal, and artistic creative ability. Snow even translated one of Mao’s poems about the Long March, and described Mao as “a rebel who could write verse as well as lead a crusade”. Again, Snow appeals to Western ‘Enlightenment liberalism’, arguing that Mao’s ideologies were well thought out and were constructed according to logical transitions and progressions: “He had in his youth had strongly liberal and humanistic tendencies, and the transition from idealism to realism evidently had first been made philosophically”.

Interestingly, Snow’s fascination and admiration of Mao sets Snow apart from many Westerners who also wrote about China. While authors like Paul Claudel, James Hilton, and Henri Michaux had written about the East as though it were an exotic garden, or a beautiful but stagnant fantasy-land, Snow argued that China was in fact a very dynamic country with change on the horizon. In his description of Mao, Snow writes: “one felt a certain force of destiny in Mao…If their [the peasant’s] “demands” and the movement which was pressing them forward were the dynamics which could regenerate China, then in that deeply historical sense Mao Zedong might possibly become a very great man”. 

While I was abroad in Fall 2009, our group traveled to Yan’an, the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution. It was cold and desolate, and I personally found it very difficult to gain an understanding of how the movement was inspired and carried out by merely visiting the place where it began. Edgar Snow’s account offered a lot of insight into this complicated historical event, but also raises a lot of questions: did Snow initially intend to showcase the Communists in such a positive light, or did this evolve as he learned more about the cause? Were Snow’s biases a result of his personal predisposition to socialist ideologies, or did they develop as Snow began to admire Mao Zedong as a personality and leader? How can the reader gain objective insight into the rise of Chinese communism, especially since this particular political ideology is so polarizing?

Perhaps rendering Snow’s account “a classic on the birth of Chinese Communism” is somewhat of a misnomer; as Snow’s work does not merely function as a piece of objective, expository journalism but also proved influential in shaping Western attitudes toward Chinese Communism through the author’s own nuanced partialities. Regardless of one’s views on the biases in Snow’s account, however, the reader must concede that Snow has been able to successfully “penetrate China” on at least two levels; firstly, by simply gaining access to the Communist movement and Party members when no other Westerner was able to do so, and secondly, by identifying Chinese history as intrinsically dynamic and transformative.

So if you’re ever in the mood for some leisurely reading about the historical birth of Chinese Communism, I urge you to give Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China” a quick look!