China in ‘House of Cards’

A ChinaFile Conversation

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 thirteen 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 Chinese search engine Baidu and co-host of the Sinica Podcast, and by Evan Osnos, staff writer at The New Yorker. [Minor spoiler alert.]—The Editors

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 Bo Xilai came out of prison but was tried for corruption again—and he got released again and became best pals with 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 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.

Kuo: Hey, after Citizens United, who knows? Even with scrutiny, the rules governing Super PAC contributions and the extent to which Super PAC contributors can involve themselves with candidates isn’t neatly laid out and easy to fudge. It’s plausible to me that earnings from Chinese gamblers—given the pervasiveness of the stereotype of Chinese fondness for gambling—could easily have gone from an Indian casino to a PAC without close scrutiny.

* * *

Currency Manipulation—Feng says he and several members of the Politburo Standing Committee want the yuan to float and see it as inevitable—yet they still want the U.S. to continue to fight them on it in the WTO. Question: Seriously?

Clarke: This is semi-plausible, although the reason offered—that reformers want the excuse of U.S. pressure to do what they want to do anyway—is not. What is plausible, and what in fact seems to have been true in the case of WTO accession, is that reformers would like to use the excuse of WTO requirements (that is, the requirements of a multilateral organization, not a single government) to do what they want to do anyway. What’s not clear is how Feng, as a member of China’s elite, would benefit from a float, assuming the effect of a float is to push the value of the yuan up. For various reasons, China’s elite generally benefits from a low yuan, which is one reason why it’s been so hard to change the policy.

Jiang: Hang on—I remember conversations by different characters on the subject during some of the middle episodes. It all made sense to me at the time but is now a blur. This is one unfortunate result of binge-watching the entire season over one weekend.

Kuo: It was explained by Feng in HoC as one of those “appearances” for which those crafty Chinese and the equally conniving Underwood discover they share a keen appreciation. Movement on the valuation had to appear to have been forced by the World Trade Organization, and couldn’t be a unilateral move by Beijing, which would appear weak. This still makes very little sense to me. Why would the appearance of knuckling under to the WTO be preferable?

* * *

Infrastructure Investment—Feng’s company is ready to build a bridge in the U.S., but then waffles. Question: Realistic?

Jiang: The writers probably read the recent news of a Shanghai construction company building the new Bay Bridge in San Francisco. But in the show, the bridge plot is kind of weak: Initially the President wants it to fulfill his campaign promise of building more infrastructure projects and Feng presumably wants it to make money—then Frank uses it as a bargaining chip. And then nobody seems to care. It’s really a bridge (plot) to nowhere.

Clarke: I can’t understand why this is such a big deal. If the President wants a bridge built somewhere, I’m pretty sure he can make that happen with only a modest expenditure of political capital. The famous Bridge to Nowhere had a price tag of $315 million in 2005, representing only one one-hundredth of a percent of federal spending in that year. Surely a President who wanted to could find this kind of pocket change lying around somewhere in the federal budget.

Kuo: My guess is the bridge element was inspired by some controversy over Chinese participation in the new Bay Bridge. China has to have something to offer, and if you read Tom Friedman, why you’d know that China’s eating our lunch with their shiny infrastructure while our bridges and airports bring shame to this great nation. They threaten to pull the bridge project when Underwood withdraws the WTO threat that, counterintuitively, Feng and his putative Politburo Standing Committee buddies wanted. Must have been Wang Qishan!

* * *

Feng solicits Caucasian prostitutes, male and female, and is into bondage and auto-asphyxiation. Question: Necessary?

Kuo: Yeah, that bit struck me as orientalist nonsense completely unnecessary to the plot. Feng only needed to be venal, corrupt, and connected; the depravity was overkill and ended up contributing nothing useful to our understanding of the character. They clearly just wanted to open a show with a shocking scene: A murder? Ah! Erotic asphyxiation! And now we see it was the villainous Feng because, see, all sexual deviancy and general moral decrepitude are always linked, like they were in the Turk. Throw those white prosties a cool ten thou. I have deals to make.