Published daily by the Lowy Institute

China's ‘House of Cards’ reveals a few home truths

The drama reflects one of China's truths: it relies on the moral compasses of Party bureaucrats to fight corruption rather than a robust legal system.

'In the Name of the People' promotional poster.
'In the Name of the People' promotional poster.
Published 17 May 2017 

The Chinese TV series 'In the Name of People', compared by many to the US-produced drama 'House of Cards', has become the most talked-about TV show nationwide after airing last month. With the clear aim of celebrating President Xi Jinping’s campaign to crack down on corrupt tigers and flies', the drama not only marked the end of a 13-year-long ban on the production and broadcast of corruption-themed TV shows, it was also granted unprecedented flexibility by the censors. Like it or not, many of the thousands that took to Weibo to share their thoughts agreed the hit drama was an accurate reflection of  life in China today.

The series depicts a stratified Chinese society that resonated with the audience. Almost all the second generation roles in the drama are graduates from a fictional law school in 'Han Dong University' and most have jobs in the same provincial capital city. Interestingly, the head of the anti-corruption bureau of the Provincial Procuratorate is the son of a former Procurator-General in the province; a female official is the daughter of a judge on the provincial court and her aunt is the wife of the province’s deputy Party Secretary.

The leading role - the head of the anti-corruption bureau, Hou Liangping, who brings all the villains to justice - is portrayed as always righteous and ready to lecture anyone on the Party ideology. He and his wife were transferred to Beijing immediately after graduation and promoted to the department head level (Ting ji) in a short time. Although unsaid,  the storylines suggest his father-in-law is a high-ranking leader, perhaps a deputy PM or even deputy chairman.

The main villain, Qi Tongwei who leads the provincial police department, has a very different background. Born to an underprivileged rural family, he studied hard in college but his career went off track after he refused to date the daughter of a high-ranking official and was punished by being sent to a job in a poverty-stricken village. Making the most of it, the fictional character successfully chases down drug dealers and is repeatedly shot on duty but he still saw no chance of getting back to the big cities, until he swallowed his pride. He knelt down to propose to a woman he didn’t love and also genuflected before other powerful people whose help he needed to advance.

This kind of subtle hereditary rule is an accurate reflection of what goes on in China. Thanks to various factors including the hukou (local residential permit) restrictions, wealth inequality, and an overall lack of transparency, those born disadvantaged have little hope of competing openly and fairly with the privileged. Upward mobility has become increasingly limited. People identified with Qi because they too often feel they have no choice but to play up to people of power and influence.

This helps to explain the simmering resentment that exists toward the rich and powerful and was memorably captured in the Hugo Award-winning science fiction novelette Folding Beijing.

In 2010 the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a report titled 'Contemporary Chinese Social Structure' that suggested China’s social structure lags its economic structure by about 15 years. That gap may be widening. Recently, a tale of hardship involving a farmer-turned domestic helper struck a chord with many. The woman works in Beijing looking after a three-month-old baby girl for a rich man’s mistress, forced to leave her own two daughters at a sub-standard nursery. It appears the Matthew Effect, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is something many identify with in China. 

Another reality the TV drama reflected is that, rather than establishing and then relying on a robust legal system, China still relies heavily on the moral compasses of Party bureaucrats to fight corruption. Sha Ruijin, the provincial Party chief depicted in the series is a perfectly upstanding and respected official with unquestionable integrity. Thanks to his courage and persistence, the anti-corruption campaign gains tremendous momentum despite many obstacles created by a crooked state official. The message behind the drama was plain: China's one-party political system is capable of clean governance as long as the Party keeps getting rid of the bad apples.

And yet it is widely known in China that the top Party boss, 'yibashou', or the Number One guy, in a region is rarely subject to public scrutiny. To be fair this notorious problem is discussed and analysed in the series. Nevertheless, the two yibashous depicted, provincial and municipal party secretaries, are perfect moral guardians who cooperate with the Party's disciplinary watchdogs.    

A lot of netizens who took to Weibo to discuss the series found this intriguing: when you are at the top of the power structure, how is it possible that you’d be willing to voluntarily weaken your own unfettered power? And when you are in a subordinate position, how can you be expected to risk your career to criticise your superior?

Actually, when it comes to tackling the cancer of corruption, some neighboring societies with similar cultural heritages, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, have experiences China could benefit from. While many are wary about Beijing's increasing influence over Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, like Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, reports directly to the highest leader of the executive branch but functions independently. The most important reason why the systems of the two nearly corruption-free Asian cities have worked so well is that the integrity of their investigation and prosecution processes is safeguarded by an independent judicial system. Once a civil servant is found involved in graft, the punishment is usually severe, let alone the huge damage to reputation.   

Last but not least, a free media where reporters can pursue allegations of wrongdoing by government officials is valued in societies that believe in various layers and systems of checks and balances to expose corruption. Regrettably, the news media is nowhere to be found in this television series, an ironic reflection of the heavily censored environment it operates in China.

Putting limits on power is one measure of how progressive – and confident – a society/government is. Surely an institutional cage is more secure than a moral one?


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