Tea Leaf Nation

A Controversial New TV Series Awakens China’s Historical Ghosts

A Controversial New TV Series Awakens China’s Historical Ghosts

HONG KONG — Chinese prime time television entertainment is usually frothy fare, with reality shows, martial arts soaps, and anti-Japanese spy series vying for ratings on a nightly basis. But the airing of a miniseries on state-run China Central Television (CCTV) called Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroads, timed to coincide with the 110th anniversary of Deng’s birth, has generated far more buzz than such a staid title would suggest. In a country where even the most painstakingly anodyne historical treatment can quickly re-open old wounds, online debate has raged about what message it delivers about China’s recent past and its upcoming future.

The treatment of history is always sensitive business in China, none more so than the perilous top-level politics that followed the Communist takeover in 1949. (Propaganda featuring late party Chairman Mao Zedong remains fairly common, but most focus on his exploits before 1949.) The new 48 episode series, which began airing on August 8, is the first officially-sanctioned dramatization of Deng’s rise to the position of paramount leader from 1976 to 1984 during one of the most tumultuous periods in contemporary Chinese politics. Befitting its subject matter, the series appears to have buy-in at the highest levels: It was written with the help of the party’s official archives department and produced by CCTV, which reportedly sent more than 10,000 copies to various censors and stakeholders before its release. As a sign of its high-level imprimatur, the series has been promoted on the website of party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

It’s therefore safe to say that how the series portrays Deng and his comrades — and perhaps more importantly, what the series omits — offers a glimpse into how the current leadership under President Xi Jinping both views and articulates the reforms that Deng started in 1979, a pivot that catalyzed the transformation of China from a super-sized North Korea to the economic juggernaut it is today. The show also sheds light on a long-simmering historical argument within China between the country’s "rightist" reformers and "leftist" conservatives. Some on the left have already called online for the cessation of Crossroads broadcasts out of "respect for history."  

The series has already raised eyebrows for venturing into what were once historical no-go zones. The first episode shows two important historical figures long hidden in the party’s dusty file bins: Hua Guofeng, Mao’s handpicked successor who Deng despised, and Hu Yaobang, Deng’s one-time handpicked successor whose death lit the fuse for mass antigovernment protests in 1989, which ended in a bloody repression in the center of Beijing. While neither Hua nor Hu were purged from the party — both were paid due respects after their deaths — their names are seldom ever mentioned in Chinese state-owned media. That’s because the stories of their rise and fall are evidence of the ideological clashes, factional politicking, and byzantine backroom plotting that the party is usually reluctant to acknowledge.   

In a likely nod to leftist interests, the series omits direct criticism of Mao. While Deng’s reforms represented a complete repudiation of Mao’s ruinous policies and led to economic prosperity, Mao’s personality cult continues to cast a shadow on Chinese politics almost 40 years after his death. Many radical leftists and nationalists cling to the notion that Mao’s China was a simpler time with fewer social ills, while the country’s most pressing problems — corruption, pollution, and wealth inequality — are the results of Deng’s embrace of a market-based economy. One Maoist wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, that "Mao represented the interests of the people, while Let’s-Get-Rich-First Deng represented the interests of the new capitalists. It’s not possible to reconcile their roles." Additional online controversy erupted after one character said Mao had "planned to take down the Gang of Four" before his death. The downfall of that clique of leftists (which included Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing) marked the end of the decade-long ordeal, during which Mao attempted to remake Chinese society but instead plunged it into chaos. Since the gang actually held considerable power when Mao died and it was not clear that he ever intended to purge them, some have accused the series of trying to airbrush Mao’s role.

An even thornier issue for the producers is whether to include any hints of the economic and social troubles in the early days of the reform that eventually culminated in mass protests in Beijing and around the country in 1989, and whether to offer any defense of Deng’s decision to call in the military and open fire on the protesters, a moment that remains a virtual black hole in Chinese historical discourse. One clue may be whether the series gives face time to former party secretary Zhao Ziyang, who served as China’s premier and Deng’s right hand man during the reforms in the 1980’s, but fell from Deng’s favor after 1989 because he sympathized with pro-democracy student protesters. Zhao was placed under house arrest for about 15 years until his death in 2004 and his name, now almost synonymous with demands to re-evaluate the Tiananmen incident, can only be whispered in corners of China’s Internet. The series is unlikely to breach this taboo topic directly, but it has already generated coded discussions of Deng’s role in 1989 on sites like Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer site. 

Deng remains a reviled figure among leftists in China for instituting market-based reforms, but he’s also controversial among more liberal-minded Chinese for crushing pro-democracy protests. The party will have to walk a fine line in commemorating him to avoid invoking extreme responses from either end of the political spectrum, all while placating both the liberals and the conservatives who populate party ranks. The miniseries is surely a part of a top-down effort to set the narrative on Deng and the reforms he initiated 35 years ago. But in the age of social media, such narratives have a tendency to take on lives of their own. 

Zhiqiang Lin contributed research.