Chinese Censors Have Kept Their Hands Off ‘House of Cards’

On 21/02/2014 by Site Default
Kevin Spacey as the ruthless American politician Francis Underwood with Robin Wright as his wife, Claire.
Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix, via Associated PressKevin Spacey as the ruthless American politician Francis Underwood with Robin Wright as his wife, Claire.

“Mao is dead. And so is his China.”

So says Vice President Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, to Xander Feng, the corrupt Chinese billionaire played by Terry Chen, in the newest season of “House of Cards,” the highly acclaimed Netflix political drama about the machinations of a ruthlessly ambitious American politician and his wife.

It’s not often one hears a line this politically provocative on a Chinese state-regulated entertainment platform. But with more than 15 million total views on Sohu, one of China’s leading Internet portals, the latest episodes (and this line) have been played many times over since the much-anticipated release of the show’s second season last week.

The new season of “House of Cards” focuses on a host of issues that would typically be regarded as sensitive by the Chinese authorities: cyber-espionage, currency manipulation, tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and the extravagant and corrupt lifestyles enjoyed by the offspring of China’s revolutionary leaders.

Despite its heavy emphasis on China, however, the show did not undergo any censorship by government authorities before its release, Charles Zhang, founder and chief executive of Sohu, said in an interview on Tuesday. The episodes available online on Sohu, said Mr. Zhang, are no different from the American version aside from the addition of Chinese subtitles. Sohu has secured the rights to broadcast the first three seasons of “House of Cards.”

“This is only a fictional story, not something that actually happened,” Mr. Zhang said.

The absence of censorship for the Chinese broadcast of the series is somewhat surprising in light of the rigid scrutiny normally applied to other foreign cultural imports, such as films and books. Before “Skyfall,” the latest James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, opened in mainland China last year, censors demanded the deletion of a scene in which Bond kills a Chinese security guard and rejected an entire storyline about the film’s villain, played by Javier Bardem, being tortured by the Chinese authorities. Books, fiction and nonfiction, have also similarly been subject to stringent censorship processes before release in the Chinese market.

But so far, it appears that the censors have taken a relatively relaxed approach to the newer medium of online television show imports. As of Tuesday, Mr. Zhang said, Sohu had not received any censorship requests. Responsibility for censorship of online video content is shared by the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda department, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

“I heard that some government officials are actually quite fond of the show,” said Mr. Zhang. “And that’s why we haven’t met with any trouble.”

Indeed, Wang Qishan, China’s top anticorruption czar, has enthusiastically confirmed that he is a big fan of the show, according to foreign visitors who have met with him.

Qin Qianqian, a publicist at Sohu Video, confirmed Mr. Zhang’s statements, adding that all of the television shows aired on Sohu are reviewed by an internal censorship team whose task is to determine whether a show contains any political risks.

But censorship of imported Internet television shows after they have been released in China has occurred in the past. Last year, popular Chinese online video portals removed an episode of the NBC crime drama series “The Blacklist,” presumably because it prominently featured a Chinese assassin.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Zhang admitted that when Sohu secured the license for “House of Cards,” it had not known that the show would contain such a strong China-related plot line, but he said that the company decided to go ahead with the plan to release the show concurrently with Netflix in the United States.

While Mr. Zhang declined to specify the financial terms of the deal by which Sohu obtained the rights to broadcast the first three seasons of the show from Sony, he did say that they had been purchased for a “midrange” sum, less than what has been paid for many domestic television shows.

The series has been immensely popular in China, with more than 27 million views on Sohu for the first season. As of Thursday, the second season of “House of Cards” remained the most-watched American television series on Sohu this week, ahead of “The Big Bang Theory” and the first season of “House of Cards.” In terms of overall views, however, the new season of “House of Cards” ranked only 13th, behind mostly mainland Chinese-produced television shows.

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