A TV series called In the Name of the People, featuring China’s current fight against high-level government corruption, has gone viral in China. Dubbed the Chinese House of Cards, the show reached an 8% TV viewing rate (the highest in 12 years) and by the end of April 2017, had been watched over 20 billion times across major Chinese online video platforms. The show is widely acclaimed for its quality production, intriguing storylines, and, more importantly, for its bold, vivid depiction of the ugly side of China’s political and social reality. Shows like this are not merely entertainment: popular culture, including TV shows, can be an important tool in the fight against corruption.
Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) started using TV shows to promote anticorruption 40 years ago. When I was growing up in Mainland China, I regularly watched Hong Kong’s long-running TV series ICAC Investigators, which featured popular actors and actresses in stories based on real cases. Before I learned anything about corruption, the ICAC’s name, the image of the professional and righteous ICAC investigators, and the impression of Hong Kong as a low-corruption society were ingrained in my mind. Until recently, Mainland China had no equivalent, partly because an administrative notice in 2004 removed shows about political corruption from prime time television. Discussions of the recent fight against corruption in the Chinese media had been limited to official propaganda, such as a pair of documentaries showing senior officials confessing on camera, but these have not attracted much popular interest or affection. With a special blessing from the central authorities, In the Name of the People—which, like ICAC Investigators, is entertaining fiction based on real current events—entered into public sight. The show offered the Chinese public a window into the behind-the-scenes power struggles in the anticorruption fight, reflecting the Chinese Communist Party’s increased confidence in controlling the anticorruption narrative. It has stirred heated public discussion on various aspects of China’s political, social, legal, and economic life. Although the impact is hard to quantify, the show has helped raise public awareness and promote public discourse on anticorruption, and more importantly, it has attracted empathy and support for the government’s anticorruption efforts.
Another important characteristic of In the Name of the People is that, unlike past shows on similar subjects, it appeals to younger audiences. The show premiered not on the official China Central Television stations, but rather on a provincial television channel that is famous for creating and broadcasting trendy entertainment programs. The show features young, well-educated professionals, and several of the plots have emphasized the role social networks can play in mobilizing citizens to fight against officials’ power abuse—while also depicting, realistically, the intervention of the government’s internet regulators. The show’s appeal to younger audiences is important. Changing endemic corruption norms is hard, and one of the keys is to reduce younger generations’ tolerance of corruption. Anticorruption education and promotion efforts therefore need to gain popularity and sympathy with young people.
Yet another notable feature of In the Name of the People is that, intentionally or not, the show helps promote the idea of fighting corruption using the law. The show features Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) prosecutors as heroic corruption fighters. The SPP, which invited a famous political drama writer to create this anticorruption show in the first place, provided a lot of real case materials and professional advice to the writers and producers. The lead actor also went to the SPP to experience the life of a professional corruption investigator. The focus on the SPP is interesting because the most important enforcement body in China’s current anticorruption campaign is not really the SPP, which is part of China’s formal legal system, but rather the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the Chinese Communist Party’s disciplinary arm. The CCDI usually investigates and disciplines officials first and then decides, when its investigation concludes, whether to send the officials to the SPP for criminal prosecution. One of the biggest criticisms of China’s anticorruption campaign has been the CCDI’s secretive and extra-legal enforcement, which raises serious concerns about human rights abuses and about undermining China’s efforts to push for rule of law. Promoting the SPP’s image of fighting corruption with legal authority thus might help raise the public’s awareness and confidence in the law. Interestingly, this is not the first of the SPP’s efforts in promoting the prosecutors’ image via popular artistic work. In 2014, a Chinese film, Twelve Citizens, adapted from the classic Twelve Angry Men and featuring a Chinese law school mock trial where students’ parents play the jurors, revealed in the end that the “rebelling juror” is a prosecutor. The film’s director, in his interview with the New York Times’ Chinese website, mentioned that while reviewing the film, the SPP officials gladly saw the film as helping promote the idea of rule of law.
Of course, how much value popular TV shows add to the anticorruption fight, beyond their entertainment value, is hard to gauge. After all, whether an anticorruption campaign is effective and credible depends on what has been done, not what has been said. This particular show has its limitations: Its heroic investigators are able to bring down corrupt officials only because the investigators have the backing of the central leaders. It promotes the official line that maintaining a clean government relies on people’s consciousness and self-discipline, rather than emphasizing systemic and institutional factors that contribute to China’s corruption problem. Still, the show marks a step of progress by revealing the complex political and social webs of corruption, and emphasizes how fighting corruption has to be a long-term and comprehensive project.
Following the popular success of In the Name of the People, two more big-budget anticorruption TV series, sponsored by the CCDI and the Ministry of Public Security respectively, will come out soon. It will be interesting to see how this institutional competition goes in terms of anticorruption promotion. At least, the Chinese audience will be kept entertained by intriguing political dramas for a while.