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Where Are All the Ordinary People in China's Hit Anti-Corruption Show ‘In the Name of the People'?

Screenshot from “In the Name of the People”

Popular political drama “In the Name of the People”, dubbed China’s “House of Cards”, has hit 8 percent TV audience share, the highest in the mainland in a decade, and its 55 episodes have received a staggering overall 22 billion views online since its first episode was aired on 28 March 2017.

The series has broken China’s decade-long ban on anti-corruption-themed dramas being aired in prime time and is the first television drama to paint a deputy of a national leader as a villain.

What seems to have hooked viewers is the show's portrayal of the internal power plays among senior Communist Party officials and their secretive lifestyles. A State Council civil servant stuffs his apartment with walls of banknotes. A provincial police chief tries to kill his political rival by manipulating a hit-and-run. The son of a deputy state-level leader makes a fortune with the support of old subordinates of his father. A judge is caught in bed with a blonde prostitute. And a provincial security chief is secretly married to his young mistress but he and his original wife still pretend to be a couple.

These storylines are reminiscent of real-life corruption cases in China. In particular, the series’ portrayal of political factions inside the Chinese Communist Party, such as the “secretary gang” and the “political legal gang”, echo real ones that were led by former President Hu Jintao’s assistant Ling Jihua and former security tsar Zhou Yongkang.

Many cultural critics have attempted to explain the popularity of the show. In a seminar, Chinese writer Mei Guoyun presented a drawing that kicked off the discussion.

Image from Mei Guoyun's blog post.

The drawing shows the characters for “people” or renmin (人民) trapped in the character for “mouth” (口). Mei posted the following question in the seminar:

张口闭口都是“人民”,到底谁可以“以人民的名义”?

The word “people” is always mentioned by [corrupt and anti-corruption officials]. Who can actually act “in the name of people”?

Wang Meiyun, a researcher at Fudan University, offered her view in the seminar and noted that “people” are actually missing in the series:

自从2004年反腐剧退出黄金档开始,各个电视台的黄金档几乎是清宫剧独占鳌头。作家及导演们表达的对现实的批判和对官场的讽刺,都只能浓缩在历史剧的叙事中,隐晦而模糊,普通老百姓无法直截了当地领会剧本对于当下现状的影射,不免有隔靴搔痒之嫌。而《人民的名义》适时地出现,几乎是给了对现状或失望或愤怒的受众一个发泄的渠道,人民对于反腐题材的期待显得如此迫不及待,而这一主题也恰恰符合了本届政府的导向,所以《人民的名义》及时地推出,必然成为人人称赞的好剧。电视剧主题的契合性已经掩盖掉本剧在情结上拖沓,台词上幼稚的毛病。

本剧有一个明显的特点是,《人民的名义》里,并没有太多的人民。剧本里出现的都是官场和商界的精英,无论正面人物还是负面人物,都没有真正意义上的普通老百姓。[…]人民的缺席与无力感,是不是也是周梅森在文本当中别有用心的一种讽刺呢?

Since 2004, anti-corruption dramas have disappeared from prime time TV, which was then occupied by Qing dynasty dramas; writers and directors could only express their views on reality through historical narratives. The messages are usually hidden and blurred and it is very difficult for ordinary people to see the hidden allegories. “In the Name of the People” has become a channel for people to release their disappointment and anger towards reality. They are so eager to watch anti-corruption dramas. At the same time, the theme is in alignment with the [current] government's political focus, so it was destined to be popular. Though the show's script is too simple, its theme has covered up its flaws.

One obvious element of the series is that we don't see many ordinary people in it. All characters, negative or positive, are elites in the government or in the business sector while ordinary people are missing. […] Is the absence of people a hidden irony in the script?

Outside China, drama critics have further dug into the characters of the corrupt and anti-corruption officials depicted in the series. In an anonymous commentary published by Letscorp, a blog that bridges contents between mainland and overseas Chinese regions:

剧中的几个出身朴素的反派:赵德汉、祁同伟、高小琴,都是一些无权无势又追求升官、发财,想要“胜天半子”逆流而上的人。平心而论,他们的动机,恰好是大多数人民群众自己的动机。而反贪的动机,从实际层面讲是要避免“亡党亡国”,从理论高度说是要“从人民中来,到人民中去”,这些都离人民自己的想法相去甚远。党国亡了,受害最大的会是反腐者所处的特权阶层,而不是人民自己。

腐败者来自于人民,而反腐者凌驾于人民。这就是《人民的名义》的现实之处,也是现实的荒诞之处。

The villains in the drama, Zhao Dehan, Qi Tongwei, and Gao Xiaoqin, all of them were originally the powerless and fought their way to become the rich and powerful. Their motive of taking control of their own fates are shared by ordinary people. On the other hand, the motive of anti-graft characters is to prevent the party and the country's downfall under the theory that it's “from the people, to the people”. Such a motivation is far from people's experience. Only the elite class would suffer from the end of the party regime, not the people.

The corrupt officials are coming from the people, while anti-graft characters are above the people. This is a reality that is captured by “In the Name of the People” and this makes the drama a satire.

The children of government and party officials have an easier time getting a good education, finding good jobs and getting promoted in China, while young people from humble families have to struggle to gain a foothold in large cities with expensive homes. Some viewers have been frustrated to see that in show, those challenging these inequities of privilege are depicted as the corrupt.

Below are some critical comments circulated on Chinese social media platforms:

一个农村出来的寒门学子,被一群官二代红二代联合绞杀了。

A graduate from a rural, humble family [one of the corrupt officials in the show] was killed by second generations of government officials and revolution leaders [anti-graft leaders].

人民的名义该改名叫封建的世袭了,农民的孩子多是贪官坏蛋,官员的孩子多是好官好人

“In the Name of the People” should have been called “Feudal Hereditary System”, as the drama suggests peasants’ children are likely to be corrupt officials and villains while officials’ children are mostly upright officials and good people.

很多网友从人物关系指出《人民的名义》电视剧的硬伤,官员之间都是亲属血缘关系,简直就是世袭罔替的活教材。这就是九品中正制啊!还有从剧名到电视剧的主题思想,排斥群众,都是青天大老爷为民作主,而不是人民群众自己当家做主!

Many netizens point out a significant fault of the series is that all officials have family or personal relationships, which is almost a textbook example of a hereditary system. Despite the title, the drama excludes the public and has high-ranking officials make decisions for the people, instead of it being up to the people themselves!

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