Entertainment, Society

The plot thickens

China’s corruption campaign to get its own House of Cards

Wang Qishan, China's Politburo Standing Committee member and head of China's anti-corruption watchdog, attends the opening session of the CPPCC in Beijing

Dramatic move: anti-corruption boss Wang Qishan promotes TV drama

Writing in The Spectator magazine last week, former UK politician Michael Dobbs revealed that he had been invited to meet Xi Jinping during his visit to the UK last October.

The reason: Dobbs is the author of House of Cards – a novel he first published in 1989 but which has since been adapted into the blockbuster hit featuring Kevin Spacey on Netflix.

Dobbs said he grabbed the moment to present Xi with “an original and now rather rare hardback copy of the book”.

The Chinese leader responded by looking somewhat “perplexed”, Dobbs says, before asking the Brit: “What, you have House of Cards in this country, too?”

The series has been a major hit in China, of course, where Xi’s anti-graft tsar Wang Qishan has said that he’s a big fan too. Wang’s support for the show, many believe, was a key reason why the series was shown without cuts (see WiC228).

Apparently, Wang now wants to see a Chinese version of the franchise. In the Name of the People is being planned as the first major TV production with an anti-corruption theme since the topic was effectively banned in 2004 (more of this long-standing moratorium later).

According to Beijing News, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) began talking with the media watchdog SAPPRFT about reintroducing the anti-graft theme in July last year. The media regulator was then given the task of overseeing the release of “at least a couple of quality films, and two or three good TV series” each year, the newspaper says.

The film and television unit of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (effectively the state prosecutor) is financing the day-to-day job of delivering In the Name of the People. That’s not quite as implausible as it sounds as the prosecutor has produced programming featuring criminals and their subsequent capture in the past. But the current undertaking looks like a much more significant exercise. The 42-episode series has a budget of Rmb120 million and an all-star cast including the actresses Hu Jin and Zhao Ziqi. More than 300 crew members have started filming in Nanjing and the series is scheduled to go on air before the end of this year.

Spokespeople at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate declined to discuss the new venture with foreign news organisations, citing its “very sensitive” nature.

But the show’s writer Zhou Meisen was more forthcoming. “In this latest production, what we will present are the clashes between corrupt officials and a disadvantaged group: average citizens,” he told ThePaper.cn.

Fan Ziwen, who will help direct the series, told Beijing Youth Daily that it had got the go-ahead because the authorities hoped it would highlight their efforts to root out graft rather than showcasing how rotten the system had become.

The plan was to show “our Party’s steadfast resolve to fight corruption,” Fan said.

To help the cast understand the realities of life awaiting abusers of public office, it was given unusual access to a high-security prison in Jiangsu province, meeting with guards and inmates. There have been visits also to the offices of the CCDI, the anti-graft body that investigates cases of corruption, too.

In the Name of the People will tell the tale of the struggle for control of a state-owned factory, following the adventures of a government investigator in a fictitious province.

More surprisingly, it seems that the villain in the upcoming series will have the rank of state Vice President (i.e. he will play China’s own Frank Underwood).

That said, Zhou has hinted that the audience won’t see the bad guy, who will only be heard over the phone, stirring intrigue and barking orders (WiC’s contribution to the script: “My son is complaining about the leather trim in that Ferrari you bought him. He wanted tortora not red”).

The Beijing Youth Daily says this “big boss” figure is so powerful that other characters dare not even mention his name.

In the Name of the People won’t be alone in turning the spotlight on political skulduggery. ThePaper.cn says SAPPRFT has given the green light for six other series. Notably, they will bring an end to one of the longest standing bans on Chinese television. Anti-corruption dramas had been a favourite for propagandists in the early 2000s. In 2004, according to Xinhua, channels across the country had more than 300 of them in the pipeline. But it had reached a point, the news agency says, where TV producers were “promoting corruption but not fighting graft”. The watchdog decided to ban the genre in prime time to “protect teenagers” and since then plotlines that portray officials (especially high-ranking ones) as corrupt have since been very rare.

Of course, that leads to questions about why the authorities have changed their minds. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping unleashed his anti-graft campaign in late 2012, thousands of crooked bureaucrats have been brought down, including high-ranking “tigers” such as Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai. True to form, the state media rallied behind news of In the Name of the People, celebrating it as a sign of the strength of the anti-graft effort, as well as the public’s support for it.

“The creation of such a TV series shows the Party’s confidence in its political system, including the anti-corruption system,” the Global Times suggested.

Hong Kong’s former colonial rulers have opted for similar programming in the past, Beijing News also noted. When the territory’s government started to crack down on widespread corruption in its police force in the 1970s, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) made a TV series about its campaign which was designed to be “educational and entertaining,” the newspaper notes.

Elsewhere there was greater anticipation of how the plot might take shape. “The approval of the shows is a source of relief for China’s TV drama practitioners who have been sitting on the fence watching the most racy material of recent years go wasted,” Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, told China Film Insider, a trade magazine.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.