The grandiose efforts of China Central Television to “faithfully” present the struggles of the late Deng Xiaoping from 1976 to 1984 has resulted in some controversy following the airing of just two episodes of the high-profile, RMB 120-million TV show on August 8.
Released ahead of Deng’s 110th birthday on August 22, the show, called “Deng Xiaoping in Historical Transition”, boasts a star-studded cast and an “authentic depiction” of historical events, particularly the leadership struggles after 1976, reported ifeng.
The show drew rare, high-level cooperation between the Sichuan Provincial Party Committee and the Central Work and Organization Department. The two chief advisors to the show were also two ministerial-level officials – Leng Rong, head of the Central Work and Organization Department, and Wang Dongming, Party chief of Deng’s hometown in Sichuan, according to Ta Kung Pao.
What underscored the show’s promotional campaigns, however, was its so-called “de-sensitization” of some historical figures, including Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded former Party chief, said Ta Kung Pao. The appearances of the two figures will be a first in the history of China’s television and movie history, according to the TV show’s director Wu Ziniu, reported Shanghai newspaper Oriental Morning Post.
But Hua Guofeng’s debut was met with online criticism for his remarks that the arrest of the Gang of Four was deployed by Chairman Mao while he was still alive.
Weibo user不大不小的白 called the line sheer “fabrication”. He said, “the show is afraid of attacking chairman Mao. But at the same time, it wants to ‘polish’ this coup. So, what to do? Fabrication. This is why the show incorporated the line that ‘arresting the Gang of Four was deployed by Chairman Mao while he was still alive’…” The post was re-posted 4,361 times, and liked by 1,020 users by Sunday night.
Some went even further, proposing a national investigation. 忧国忧民王余杰, a verified Weibo user and a delegate to the National People’s Congress (China’s parliament) wrote, “I suggest that we investigate the show ‘Deng Xiaoping in Historical Transition’. The first episode aired on CCTV blasted out a piece of explosive information. Hua Guofeng said, ‘arresting the Gang of Four was deployed by Chairman Mao while he was alive’ and ‘the Gang of Four plans to launch a coup on October 10 (in 1976)’. I suggest the central government launch an immediate investigation (to verify the information). If false, we should stop airing the show immediately to avoid feeding the West an excuse to attack us”.
According to Ezra Vogul’s book, “Deng Xiaoping and The Transformation of China”, Hua’s remarks were not unfounded, nor were they groundless. After the arrest of the Gang of Four, its followers (or the radicals) knew that Mao tried to ensure a place for the gang among the top Party leadership. In order to satiate the followers, Hua collected materials that “spelled out the crimes of the gang and, in three batches of materials he had distributed, made the case their arrest was consistent with Mao’s views,” Vogel wrote.
Despite some viewers’ criticism, Deng’s family gave the show a thumbs-up and said, “This is the Laoyezi (old man in English, referring to Deng) we remember in our hearts”, according to the show’s producer Gao Chengsheng.
Although there have been attempts to brush off the sensitive subjects, Ye Kuangzheng, a Chinese scholar, noted in an interview with ifeng that the show was “an improvement”. The opening scene of the show showed Xidan’s Democracy wall in Beijing and Hu Yaobang, two sensitive subjects in the Party’s history that influenced the 1989 student pro-democracy movement.
Those efforts to skirt Party taboos, according to Gongshi Net, were intended to convey a more serious message when the aftershocks of the reform and opening up incited some public indignation, such as the widening wealth gap, rampant corruption and the Party’s entrenched interest groups. In an article for the Gongshi Net, Cai Fanghua wrote that the show signalled the Party’s resolution to tackle hurdles and opposing forces. He wrote, “no matter how strong the opposing force is, or what hurdles the future might have, Deng and former leaders’ reform and opening up strategy will be implemented without any hesitation”.