Corruption theme drives ‘House of Cards’ success in China

Communist leadership keen on exploits of shifty US president played by Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey stars as President Frank Underwood in the latest teaser trailer for House of Cards season four. Video: Netflix


With the Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign in full swing, House of Cards has become a huge hit in China. Kevin Spacey, who plays the Machiavellian president Francis Underwood in the TV show, told an audience in Paris this week that the show had made him a star in China, with even the Communist Party leadership tuning in.

His comments were widely reported within China. Although China is a communist country, where no one gets to vote except in very limited local polls, corruption is a burning issue and House of Cards has a particular resonance.

“They tell me House of Cards is a huge success in China, that the government like it a lot and that for the man in the street Underwood is seen as a man who fights corruption,” Spacey told reporters in Paris at a European launch of a new series of the show.

The Netflix epic is available legally in China through SohuTV, which bought the rights to the show. It’s enormously popular, in part because Netflix releases the entire series at once online, which allows it get around Chinese censorship rules requiring TV serials to submit the entire season for approval before broadcasting.

Political rivals

In September, when talking about the anti-corruption campaign that he has orchestrated since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping insisted it was about stamping out graft and not purging political rivals, adding that it was not an episode of House of Cards.

Even the ruling Communist Party’s top anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan has admitted watching the show.

Corrupt cadres are hated by the people and are seen as the biggest threat to the Communist Party’s grip on power. The crackdown on corruption has so far punished over 300,000 party officials, although the revelations this month in the Panama Papers about the families of the leadership – which would not look out of place as a plot line from the Underwood family saga – have been firmly censored in China.

In November last year, Spacey, in character as Underwood, appeared at a Singles’ Day internet shopping event hosted by online superstore Alibaba and its creator Jack Ma.