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As the second season of House of Cards aired on China’s Sohu.com streaming service, the exploits of fictional U.S. politico Frank Underwood, plus the show’s edgy Chinese storyline, appear to have dodged the censors in this fast-growing market.
China is a Communist country, where no one gets to vote except in very limited local polls, but corruption is top of the news every night and House of Cards has a particular resonance here.
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Even the ruling Communist Party’s top anti-corruption official Wang Qishan watches the show.
“When we chose to purchase the copyright of the show, regardless of the first season, we didn’t know or expect that the second season had so much to do with China. I’m sure it’s probably because of emerging power and the increase in importance of China in the global affairs, so that Americans have higher interest than previously,” said Sohu chief executive Charles Zhang in a news conference in Beijing.
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The machinations of wheeler-dealer Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, have struck a chord in a country where corrupt cadres are seen as the biggest threat to the Communist Party’s grip on power.
“The show will not create an illusion about U.S. politics, but it show actually allows Chinese people to experience American politics as if they were there,” Zhang said.
The series debuted on Feb. 14 at the same time as its debut on Netflix in the U.S.
The first season ran in low-key fashion in China, but for the second season, Zhang said Sohu had improved the subtitles and done more marketing, after its predecessor worked well among elite viewers.
By including a major show line about China, producers have guaranteed an audience, though given the tight grip on Chinese movies, it is surprising that a plot about corrupt Chinese businessmen, cyber espionage and China’s territorial ambitions in the East China Sea managed to get past censors.
“It seems that many officials also watch it, so there is no problem,” Zhang explained.
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According to a report last year in the Hong Kong news magazine Phoenix Weekly, anti-graft chief Wang, who is also a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, has recommended that people watch to learn about corruption. He is particularly interested in the role of the party whip keeping discipline in the ranks.
China’s online video market has emerged as a viable distribution channel for Hollywood content producers, with a raft of top U.S. TV series, such as The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead and Modern Family, selling to Sohu.com, Youku Tudou and other streaming services.
In January, The Ellen DeGeneres Show became the first American daily talk show to be carried in China, shortly after Saturday Night Live made its China bow.
The sums involved in licensing content are small, and to make VOD a meaningful business, China has to deal with the widespread problem of digital piracy. A campaign by major online services is beginning to gain traction in this direction.
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House of Cards remains niche viewing in China, notching up around nine million combined views on Sohu, which is less than the celebrity parent reality show Dad, Where Are We Going? which was viewed over one billion times last year, Zhang said. The show is watched on computer screens, tablet and mobile phones, he added
Underwood may be a sneaky, scheming S.O.B., and the politics in Washington are undeniably murky, but as the recent purge of former Communist Party rising star Bo Xilai showed, China is no stranger to power plays and corrupt officials.
Many online commentators fear House of Cards might ultimately prove too much for censors.
“There are too many Chinese elements in the second season. It has a lot related to corruption behind the scenes. Watch it now before it gets banned,” wrote one commentator on the Sina Weibo microblog service.
Another wrote: “Any TV show that reflects poorly on the situation in China will be blocked.”
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