What House of Cards Gets Right (and Wrong) About China

China experts weigh in on the Netflix series' latest season.
House of Cards title screen. (Netflix)

China figures heavily in the second season of the Netflix series House of Cards, but how accurately does the show portray U.S.-China relations? Steven Jiang, a journalist for CNN in Beijing, binged-watched all 13 recently released web-only episodes over the weekend. Donald Clarke, professor of Chinese law at George Washington University, responded to our query saying we’d reached his “inner nerd.” Jiang and Clarke started us off putting the lie to Hollywood’s portrayal of U.S.-China relations, and were followed by Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for the Chinese search engine Baidu and co-host of the Sinica Podcast, and by Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker.

Corruption: House of Cards' fictional Chinese billionaire Xander Feng, though twice tried for corruption at home, says he can sway the senior leadership of the Communist Party. Question: Possible?

Steven Jiang: Not really. It’s like saying [disgraced Chinese politician] Bo Xilai came out of prison but was tried for corruption again—and he got released again and became best pals with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.

Kaiser Kuo: If he’s supposed to be a princeling whose grandfather fought alongside Mao and was one of the Eight Immortals, then it’s plausible that he would have access and even influence within the very senior echelons of the Party leadership. The impossible part of course is the notion that he’d been brought up twice on corruption charges and acquitted. This to me was the most egregious bit in Feng’s backstory, and one that was wholly unnecessary to establish that he was walking a fine line.

Evan Osnos: Since a trial would indicate that Feng had already failed to manage his relationship with his peers, the answer is no. This is merging two interesting but separate themes from Chinese history: In the past, you could be purged twice or three times as [Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping was, and still recover your status. But in this day, when corruption trials are deployed only as a final verdict on your political viability, there are no second chances. You need to go as long as you can before getting tried.

* * *

Rare-Earth Mining: Feng is in a joint-venture, rare-earths mining operation with U.S. power plant billionaire Raymond Tusk. Question: Plausible?

Jiang: Not really. Beijing has linked its rare-earth deposits to national interest and would never approve such a joint venture. And why would there be rare earth mining in Fujian as described in the show? Most deposits are in Inner Mongolia!

Donald Clarke: No. According to the most recent version of the Guidance Catalog for Foreign Investment in Industrial Sectors, any foreign investment in rare-earths mining, even via a joint venture, is prohibited (see Prohibited Industries, Sec. II.2). This is not to say that Tusk couldn’t be involved in some arrangement with Feng that is similar in substance to a joint venture—after all, foreign investors have been able to use the variable-interest entity structure to navigate around restrictions and prohibitions on foreign investment in telecommunications—but it certainly couldn’t be called a joint venture.

Osnos: My fellow commentators have dismantled this one, but I've always been impressed with how the Tusk character has mastered the very authentic habit of constantly invoking his “35 years of dealing with the Chinese” as his trump card in conversations. Any China hand has used a version of this line before, in an attempt to squelch some bad idea or another, and we should be reminded of how it sounds.

* * *

Junkets: In the show, the sociopathic U.S. Vice President Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, unearths Federal Aviation Administration records showing that Feng’s private jet has flown from Beijing to Missouri dozens of times in a few years. Question: So what?

Osnos: If this was reality, Feng is more likely to have gone to New Haven (to visit a child in prep school), then Napa (to check on his vineyards), and then Vegas. For the Chinese oligarchs, the days of dutiful work-only trips to the U.S. are over, if ever they existed.

* * *

Campaign Finance: The show’s writers would have viewers believe that Chinese gambling losses at a Missouri casino are funneled into U.S. politics by the Native American casino owner as political action committee contributions, first to the Democrats, then to the Republicans. Question: Really?

Jiang: The image of Al Gore “hanging out” with Asian monks popped up in my mind—as far as I remember, that was the last time alleged illegal campaign donation involving the Chinese made news. This hasn’t been a major issue recently and I somehow doubt the Chinese would be this sophisticated in channeling money to U.S. politicians.

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ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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