Tea Leaf Nation

Drunken Chinese Celeb ‘Rap Geniuses’ Mao-Era Song

The resulting online flame war underscores social media’s power to both amplify — and discourage — controversial speech.

Bi small 2

A Chinese celebrity TV host’s impromptu parody of a classic revolutionary song has gone viral, exposing painful rifts in Chinese society between leftists and rightists — and highlighting the double-edged sword of social media in spreading and challenging freedom of speech.

Bi Fujian, a regular host at state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), likely never meant for his parody to go public. Having also served since 2011 as host at the Chinese New Years Gala, the world’s most-watched annual television event, Bi is a household name in the world’s most populous country. That also means much of China was eager to view a video that first drew attention on April 6, showing a seemingly intoxicated Bi offering snarky commentary to “The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” a well-known song from a 1958 revolutionary opera, as he sat at a restaurant table with three laughing companions. The song lauds Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong and the exploits of the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army during the civil war with the Nationalists in the late 1940s. In the video, Bi made fun of the song’s sometimes exaggerated sentiment and fervent patriotism. After the lyric “we wear a red star on our heads, a red flag on either side of us,” for example, Bi joked, “What kind of get-up is that?” In what was perhaps the most inflammatory line, Bi called Mao an expletive similar to “a son of a bitch,” one who had “really hurt [Chinese people] bitterly.” Bi is already facing professional backlash. Saying the incident had “seriously influenced” its public image, CCTV announced on April 8 that it would suspend the programs Bi hosts for four days and, pending an investigation, would “deal severely” with the incident.

After its release, the anonymously filmed video clip swiftly attracted the online ire of leftists, a group with a resurgent loyalty to Mao’s ideas and nostalgia for the party’s pre-reform policies. “For the host of a ruling party’s top media mouthpiece to curse the party’s and nation’s founder calls for more than such trivial measures as being fired,” wrote Duan Wei, an online commentator who goes by the moniker Si Ma Ping Bang, with more than 600,000 followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. “Hurrah to whoever posted this video!” In another widely forwarded post, the ideological research department at the state-affiliated think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences wrote that Bi “must be severely punished. Otherwise, such a bad role model is a recipe for disaster.”

But Chinese society hasn’t forgotten the nightmares of Mao-era policies, which include a largely man-made famine from 1959 to 1962 that may have killed more than 30 million people, followed by a decadelong period of Mao-driven violence and chaos. For some web users, the leaking of the video and subsequent leftist criticism of Bi recalled memories of that decade, known as the Cultural Revolution, when friends, neighbors, and even family members were encouraged to betray one another for being insufficiently devoted to Mao’s ideals. “During the Cultural Revolution, wives would report what their husbands said under the sheets; sons would report what mothers said at the dinner table,” Xia Wenyu, a novelist, wrote in a Weibo post. “The jerk who made this video public is a remnant of that informant culture.” Another user wrote that “those calling for Bi to be severely punished” are “poison left over from the Cultural Revolution.” Others — some of them perhaps rightists, those opposed to Maoism and likely to support liberal reform — compared those who denounced Bi to the Red Guard, the loosely organized student militias who policed and sometimes terrorized local residents during that chaotic period. As one Weibo user wrote derisively, “It seems that the Red Guard is all grown up now.”

The social media storm surrounding Bi’s leaked video has not only pitted conservatives against reformers; it’s also opened up a debate about the nature of what speech should be private. Although China regularly criminalizes certain political speech and has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, it’s also a place where most people feel they can talk freely among friends or at a dinner table — as long as what they say stays there. The pervasiveness of online life threatens that compact. “By making this video public,” wrote prominent blogger Wang Zhi’an in a popular post, “what has been destroyed is the world’s most basic form of trust,” i.e., social trust. “People live within a society, they don’t live within an ideology,” Wang continued, criticizing as “fascist” those who “use political correctness to censor what people say in private.” Other users sought to reinforce what they saw as a clear line in the sand between the totalitarian oppression in Chinese neighbor North Korea and its absolute intolerance for criticism of the Kim dynasty, and the relative freedom in China to echo party-approved critiques of certain past mistakes. “How is it that we can’t criticize Mao?” demanded one user in a popular comment directed at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences post. “You [must have] thought you were in North Korea!”

Though Chinese social media is subject to constant filtering by official censors, it has still come to serve the dual role already familiar to many Internet users elsewhere: polarizing already fierce ideological divides, and spreading speech while also increasing the personal and professional costs of errant (or supposedly private) comments. But in China, where there are few protections of individual freedom and thus greater risk for those whose comments belie the party line, social media’s dual role presents a serious dilemma. As one Weibo user wrote, “Society has regressed if now at dinner, we must all put away our cell phones.”

Yiqin Fu and Shujie Leng contributed research.

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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