By Jack Hu
Popular political drama “In the Name of the People”, dubbed China’s “House of Cards”, has hit an 8 per cent TV audience share, the highest in the mainland in a decade, and its 55 episodes have received a staggering overall 22 billion views online since its first episode was aired on March 28, 2017.
The series has broken China’s decade-long ban on anti-corruption-themed dramas being aired in prime time, and is the first television drama to paint a deputy of a national leader as a villain.
What seems to have hooked viewers is the show’s portrayal of the internal power plays among senior Communist Party officials and their secretive lifestyles.
A State Council civil servant stuffs his apartment with walls of banknotes. A provincial police chief tries to kill his political rival by manipulating a hit-and-run. The son of a deputy state-level leader makes a fortune with the support of old subordinates of his father. A judge is caught in bed with a blonde prostitute. And a provincial security chief is secretly married to his young mistress but he and his original wife still pretend to be a couple.
These storylines are reminiscent of real-life corruption cases in China. In particular, the series’ portrayal of political factions inside the Chinese Communist Party, such as the “secretary gang” and the “political legal gang”, echo real ones that were led by former President Hu Jintao’s assistant Ling Jihua and former security tsar Zhou Yongkang.
Many cultural critics have attempted to explain the popularity of the show. In a seminar, Chinese writer Mei Guoyun presented a drawing that kicked off the discussion.
The drawing shows the characters for “people” or renmin (人民) trapped in the character for “mouth” (口). Mei posted the following question in the seminar:
Wang Meiyun, a researcher at Fudan University, offered her view in the seminar and noted that “people” are actually missing in the series:
One obvious element of the series is that we don’t see many ordinary people in it. All characters, negative or positive, are elites in the government or in the business sector while ordinary people are missing. […] Is the absence of people a hidden irony in the script?
Outside China, drama critics have further dug into the characters of the corrupt and anti-corruption officials depicted in the series. In an anonymous commentary published by Letscorp, a blog that bridges contents between mainland and overseas Chinese regions:
The corrupt officials are coming from the people, while anti-graft characters are above the people. This is a reality that is captured by “In the Name of the People” and this makes the drama a satire.
The children of government and party officials have an easier time getting a good education, finding good jobs and getting promoted in China, while young people from humble families have to struggle to gain a foothold in large cities with expensive homes. Some viewers have been frustrated to see that in show, those challenging these inequities of privilege are depicted as the corrupt.
Below are some critical comments circulated on Chinese social media platforms: