Chinese TV series on late leader raises questions of Communist openness

China's state television is airing a serial on late leader Deng Xiaoping, a rare portrayal of a top politician that state media have trumpeted as a sign the Communist Party is easing its grip on officials' sensitive legacies.

A man looks out from a window next to a portrait of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wearing military uniform in a gallery at Dafen Oil Painting Village, in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong province, April 24, 2011. Credit: Reuters A man looks out from a window next to a portrait of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wearing military uniform in a gallery at Dafen Oil Painting Village, in Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong province, April 24, 2011.
Credit: Reuters

 

China's state television is airing a serial on late leader Deng Xiaoping, a rare portrayal of a top politician that state media have trumpeted as a sign the Communist Party is easing its grip on officials' sensitive legacies.

 

The 48-part drama series chronicles a period between 1976 and 1984, when Deng began pushing China toward market reforms that ignited its transition into the world's second largest economy.

 

"In recent years, China's restricted areas of speech have obviously decreased. This series marks significant progress," the Global Times, a tabloid owned by party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said in an editorial on Monday.

 

But the show has prompted debate about how producers will approach sensitive internal conflicts that have more or less been air brushed out of official party accounts.

More contentious than the show's central figure is the novel appearance of actors depicting several other controversial politicians, among them the late reformist Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, who Deng ousted.

Hu's death in April 1989 sparked student protests centered on Tiananmen Square, a movement that later turned into pro-democracy demonstrations that were crushed by the military on orders from Deng on June 3 and 4 that year.

The timeframe of the series means it is likely to skirt Hu's 1987 ouster and the Tiananmen crackdown, and it is unclear how it will address, if at all, the 1981 downfall at Deng's hands of Hua Guofeng, Mao Zedong's anointed successor.

The proof would be in the showing, said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

"[The show] is perhaps a signal that events in this era are no longer as sensitive," Zhang added.

"If it turns out that they reveal certain things, then it could have desensitizing benefits," he said, referring to party battles between leaders.

In China, all broadcast media and films are pre-screened for approval and anything deemed politically sensitive is banned.

China's government and the party have a track record of covering up bad or embarrassing information. Mention of events such as the Tiananmen protests remains taboo, and strict censorship limits the public's awareness.

The myriad off-limit topics tend to funnel productions toward the drama of war, typically with programs that pit Communist armies beating back Japanese invaders. China's state administrator approved 69 anti-Japanese television series for production in 2012.

Despite the popularity of those shows, a series about Deng's struggles is something of a fresh turn of events for prime-time viewers.

Some marveled that screened episodes of the show deal with the downfall of the Gang of Four, led by Mao's widow, an event at the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution that remains one of China's worst political scandals.

"It appears it's the first time the Cultural Revolution Gang of Four has been mentioned in a television drama ... China really was in its most calamitous moments at that time. Intense!" one viewer wrote on the Weibo microblog.

 
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