House of Cards in China

Curator's Note

In 2013, the Netflix-produced political drama House of Cards (hereafter HoC) was a hit in China. Rather than entering the country via illicit streaming, it became the most-watched American TV show on Sohu, one of China’s largest internet service providers. Season Two, which features a corrupt Chinese bureaucrat, not only remained online uncensored; it attracted eight times as many Chinese viewers as the first one. Its fans even included several high-ranking officials.

Euro-American journalists are quick to speculate that the Chinese Communist Party may be using HoC to instruct the perils of US democracy. Yet many Chinese viewers call the series "Legends of Empress Zhen in the White House," seeing it as an American version of the popular court drama set in imperial China. Quite a few viewers, in fact, are less interested in the show’s depiction of procedural democracy than its provision of useful lessons for career advancement.

This reception corresponds to Joe Conway’s reading of HoC as proffering "a wholly depoliticized version of politics” in which “government is simply a symbolic arena for a family’s private ambitions." Netflix’s tracking of user information in catering the series to its audience base, which for Conway offers consumers an illusory “command” over content creation, is frequently celebrated in China, especially by those eager to replicate the show’s commercial success. HoC, symptomatic of this global depoliticization of politics that centers more on the individual consumer than on the nation-state, thus prompts us to more rigorously consider the political entanglement of the two "superpowers."


Thanks for raising these interesting questions about the circulation of HoC in China and the different frameworks for theorizing its popularity there. Your analysis draws our attention to the ways that our assumptions about global television distribution and reception in China may lead us to misread the show's value to Chinese viewers. Given the public fixation by Netflix executives on China's inaccessibility as a market, an awareness of how HoC has circulated through Sohu allows us to grasp the complexity of global distribution agreements. Reading your post I was struck by the relevance of the promotional videos for Netflix India that feature HoC. This video ( ) functions as trailer and recap, promoting both the show and Netflix. Your reading of HoC's "wholly depoliticized version of politics" via Conway is echoed in the video where the rapid summary of the political machinations depicted in the show is instantly reimagined in relation to more mundane office politics. The setting and the language in the video point to the class position of the imagined audience for Netflix India, and the use of local film stars allows the viewer to imagine a transnational remake of the show (without the cost!) (See also this video released as part of the same campaign:

Wow, thanks so much, Lisa, for sharing these fascinating clips! I’m so glad you raised the issue of class. As I mentioned in my response to Monika, Sohu was drawn to Netflix’s branding of the show as a product of “high culture,” one that could help to boost the company’s streaming profile, targeting the urban (and often English-speaking) middle class. Whether or not Netflix has direct access to the nation (e.g. India or China), it is the transnational “managerial class” subject position that is privileged here, which is also indicative of the cultural forces of neoliberal globalization.

Fan, Thanks for a wonderful post! Do you see the viewers and the Chinese industry reading HOC as a (neoliberal) script to follow? Could you say more about Sohu and its relationship with Netflix? Monika

Thanks, Monika, for the great questions! Indeed, a neoliberal script seems like an apt way to describe how Netflix appeals to Chinese audiences/industry. In 2013, Sohu wanted to upgrade its online streaming profile to compete with other Chinese sites like Youku and iQiyi. The "high quality" image of House of Cards, cultivated as part of Netflix's production branding (as you mentioned in your post on Hotstar), attracted the CEO Charles Zhang. Even so, Ma Ke, the senior executive of audio-visual copyrights acquisition at Sohu, first thought the show was "too high-end” for the market. Members of the senior staff at Sohu reportedly said that “although they loved watching it themselves, their wives couldn’t stand it.” But Ma soon noticed the show had generated waves of discussion on Sina Weibo (one of the largest social media sites in China), even prompting the voluntary distribution of fansubbing groups. This *popular* demand led quickly to Sohu’s purchasing decision. One may say that Sohu has followed Netflix in "tracking" audience preferences.

Fan, thanks so much for your reply. It's fascinating to learn more about streaming services in China. So often, at least in the U.S, digital discourse around China focuses on geoblocking and censorship, that we don't hear as much about taste cultures and production as well as circulation contexts. To what extent (if any) has geoblocking has fostered the growth of national industries? With regard to HOC, I was taken by the gendered response to the show. I was curious was this response circulated as publicity for the show. Did gender appear as a category for audience assessment on Sina Weibo or the subsequent reception of Sohu? Monika

Thanks, Monika! Geoblocking and censorship have no doubt played a big part in protecting/nurturing the domestic media industries, whether it is social media or online streaming services. They are often at once ideologically driven (as more frequently reported in Euro-American press) *and* economically motivated. I, too, was struck by the gender dimension, which I'm yet to look at more closely. On WeChat, now the most popular mobile-based social media platform, I recall seeing posts exclusively devoted to Claire Underwood - her style, her role as a wife/First Lady, and her career ambition, etc. I have also spoken to female Chinese friends living in China and the DC area who are fans of the show. The quote of the Sohu executives is indicative of a broader (gendered) perception that K-drama and domestic melodrama would appeal to the “wives” more so than a show like HoC. But my sense is that this is also a class issue, as professional women of transnational experiences are clearly drawn to characters like Claire, even if the appeal may still stem from such gendered categories as fashion and family relations.

Fang- This is a fascinating example of the discrepancies of cultural translation and reception and the ways in which the transnational circulation of media products are framed within national ideologies. This post also poses questions about the universality of particular themes. Furthermore, I was struck by the use of House of Cards in Brazil. A new Netflix series Mecanismo has been dubbed the "Brazilian House of Cards," and is supposedly inspired on real life events of corruption. However, O Mecanismo has also experienced backlash this week with accusations of the show's conservatism and support of what is seen as a political coup. There have been calls for many Brazilian subscribers to cancel their Netflix accounts. The ways in which Netflix programming is circulated for global audiences, but the national specifics of these programs also undercut these transnational experiences. It sounds like there needs to be a BRIC conversation concerning House of Cards!

Love this idea, Jasmine! After all, Putin is reportedly also a fan of the show and considers it a "documentary": China, too, had a series in 2017 that was, according to China Daily, “poised to challenge the popularity of the US hit House of Cards.” It is called "In the Name of the People (Renmin de Mingyi)." This is a drama of high production value and features the highest-ranking corrupt official on-screen, even though by way of disembodied voice only. It was the hottest trending show on Chinese social media that year! I'm curious as to how the various national reception and appropriations of House of Cards in the BRIC context speak to the geopolitical shift that is sometimes perceived as "the decline of America and the rise of the rest?"

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.