The anti-corruption television drama In the Name of the People 人民的名义 was a massive hit in 2017, gripping audiences from the broadcast of the first episode in March. The fifty-two-episode drama, based on a novel by Zhou Meisen 周梅森, had captured a record ten per cent average of Chinese viewers nationally, racking up over 7.7 billion views on just one licensed platform, iQiyi, alone.
After a decade of strict censorship of social and reality television dramas by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, In the Name of the People struck many as tremendously bold, even if it was ‘on message’ with President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign; some have even compared it with Netflix’s House of Cards.
The Supreme People’s Procuratorate commissioned the series, which also lists among its producers the Jiangsu Provincial Party Committee and the Central Military Commission. Hunan Television, a leading broadcaster of television entertainment programs and the primary online distributor of this drama, PPTV, had made a good bet on the show despite initial funding problems and low expectations for success.
The story begins when a director at the central Ministry of Land and Resources — a position famously prone to corruption in the bureaucracy — is, despite a carefully cultivated reputation for austerity, found to have in his suburban villa huge amounts of cash that he has amassed through bribery. The investigation is headed by Hou Liangping, a determined young official from the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. The director’s downfall — kneeling and weeping for mercy before the young official — is just the beginning of the young investigator’s campaign to uncover the truth behind corrupt goings-on within a state-owned enterprise (SOE). As the story unfolds, Hou uncovers entangled relationships involving local officials past and present in the fictive province of Handong. There are scenes of sexual bribery, nepotism, heavying by gangsters in labour disputes, and other abuses of power by government officials.
The unprecedented revelation of corruption behind the scenes has evoked passionate responses from audiences, with the series becoming a major topic of conversation for old and young in the early months of 2017. A sea of online commentary from China’s lively netizen community ranged from casual gossip about love, women, and marriage, to more serious ones of social stratum, bureaucracy, and governance. There was also quite a bit of liveliness and humour, with some writing funny songs and creating emojis based on characters in the show, and making stars of the actors they nicknamed the ‘Handong Boys’.
In November 2017, a lawsuit ensured that this drama remained in the limelight. An accusation was made that one of its main plots was plagiarised from a former journalist’s publication in 2010, as the two share similar scenes of worker protests, government regulation, and gangster interference surrounding the selling and reform of an SOE. The scriptwriter for In the Name of the People denied the accusation, making the point that this particular plot is typical of Chinese enterprise reform during past decades. While the outcome of the lawsuit is still pending (at the time of publication), it’s hard to argue with this point.