BEIJING -- I knew before arriving that Netflix's "House of Cards" was an unexpected hit here. Still, it took the ripped-from-the-airwaves coincidence of five members of the Chinese military indicted on charges of cyber espionage to grasp more fully the allure of this American political drama for Chinese citizens and leaders alike.
You might not think a censorship regime that recently yanked such seemingly benign shows as "The Good Wife" and "The Big Bang Theory" would comfortably tolerate "House of Cards," especially with its second-season pivot to a subplot involving corrupt Chinese businessmen, Chinese hackers committing industrial espionage, trade battles with the United Sates and territorial disputes with Japan.
"Mao is dead, and so is his China," Francis Underwood, the series' relentlessly scheming main character, lectures a Chinese billionaire in one episode that aired undisturbed.
For Chinese authorities, the upside of tolerating such effrontery is that it buttresses a dark, skewed vision of American politics.
Americans watch "House of Cards" and see it as a dramatic-license version of capital intrigue, manipulation and skullduggery. However low the national regard for politicians, American viewers know that soon-to-be vice presidents don't dispense with nosy reporters by shoving them off Metro platforms, however tempting that may be. American audiences automatically discount the buffoonery of "Veep" or the implausible scenarios of "Scandal."
To Chinese viewers, however, "House of Cards" serves as a streaming video CliffsNotes to the American political system. The depiction of politics as noble calling on "The West Wing" arrived before the Internet era, yet the conspiratorial, manipulative worldview of "House of Cards" is a more fitting match for this edgy moment in U.S.-Sino relations. It is unsurprising that the series, offered on the video service Sohu, attracts an above-average proportion of government workers.
Chinese viewers -- from conversations on this trip arranged by the Committee of 100, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to mutual understanding -- seem happy to assume the worst of U.S. politicians even as they marvel at the freedom of a system that permits airing of such an unvarnished depiction of governmental malfeasance. "House of Cards" helps assuage their quiet anxieties about U.S. superiority and their own systemic shortcomings.
"I think it should be true," one 27-year-old management trainee told me about the show. Still, she said, "In China we cannot imagine to write this kind of series and to show the dark part of government."
Added Tom Doctoroff, the Shanghai-based CEO of the advertising firm JWT Asia Pacific, "it basically confirms what Chinese think of their own government."
Which explains the series' usefulness to Chinese leaders: It helps level the political playing field.
In part, I suspect they simply appreciate the Machiavellian tradecraft. If President Obama's joking reaction to the series was to "wish things were that ruthlessly efficient," Chinese leaders may have watched and thought: Hmmm, looks pretty good to us. Among the show's reported fans is Wang Qishan, China's corruption czar and one of its most powerful leaders. Wang, speaking to a party gathering about the importance of maintaining party discipline, cited Underwood's role as legislative whip, according to the Hong Kong newspaper Phoenix Weekly.
But "House of Cards" also serves as a valuable inoculation against Chinese citizens' cynicism about their own government.
Listen to Chinese officials, and there is a distinct pattern of pingpong rhetoric. You say Tiananmen Square, they toss back Abu Ghraib. You invoke Liu Xiaobo, the jailed the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, they counter with Edward Snowden. After all, both have been accused of breaking their countries' laws. You say cyber espionage, they turn again to Snowden and surveillance.
"House of Cards" offers a similar opportunity for claimed equivalence, perhaps more convincing because it is produced by the adversary. If the Chinese view their own leadership as corrupt and their system rigged -- well, then, U.S. politicians are no better. Thus China's U.S. ambassador, Cui Tiankai, was only too happy to observe that the show "embodies some of the characteristics and corruption that is present in American politics."
River Lu, an adviser to Duke Energy here, said she thought this was the obvious explanation for the series' free pass from censors. "House of Cards' shows, yes, they [U.S. officials] may look more nice, but look at what's happening behind the curtain," she said.
Consider Underwood's sly aside as he prepares to assume the vice presidency: "One heartbeat away ... and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated."
What's not for a Chinese bureaucrat to love?
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By RUTH MARCUS