Will new TV series on Deng Xiaoping crack light into some of the black holes in contemporary Chinese history?

Alia | August 13th, 2014 - 1:34 am

Released ahead of the late leader’s 110th birthday on August 22, mini-series Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroad, which boosts an “authentic depiction” of historical events between 1976 and 1984, made it first debut last Friday.  In a country where the political life of top leaders are best learnt through gossiping with taxi drivers in Beijing, the new TV series is sure to catch attention.

China’s pro-government newspaper Global Times already called the show “a breakthrough into the forbidden zone.” But is it? Could it be a sign that China’s Communist Party is ready to lift the veil over some of the country’s darkest moments in contemporary history?

The Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. The two absolute historical dark holes in China’s public discourse are also two unavoidable events in any effort to document the ups and downs of Deng Xiaoping, modern China’s “architect” who are credited with transforming the country with his opening-up policy: Deng was purged twice during the Cultural Revolution for being a “bourgeois” reformist who held different political ideologies of Chairman Mao.  And in 1989, it was Deng who made the order to use force against student protesters at the Square.

The new TV show, which is reported to have gone through layers of sanction, made an effort to walk around sensitive topics by limiting its coverage to the period between 1976, when the downfall of the “Gang of Four” marked the end of Cultural Revolution; and 1984, 5 years before the deadly events in 1989. But to tell stories in this “sandwiched” period, during which Deng rose to China’s “paramount leader,” gives enough room for imagination.

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Surprise came as early as in the 1st episode which started with the historical downfall of the “Gang of Four.” Hua Guofeng, who is probably China’s least known Party chairman, also made a rare appearance.

As Mao’s handpicked successor and the president who played a key role in concluding the end of the Cultural Revolution, Hua Guofeng is a name that’s even seldom heard of by many Chinese. After taking power in 1976, Hua was soon ousted by Deng and his allies, and was eventually forced to make way for Deng, who served as China’s de facto leader without ever being elected head of state.

What’s more surprising is a comment made by Hua in the 1st episode that Mao had “planned to take down the Gang of Four” before his death.  Many Chinese netizens sarcastically called the comment “the biggest national secret of China,” and “a daring lie that even Party historians don’t have the guts to tell.”

“Chairman Mao had planned….before his death” even becomes some sort of an online meme to comment on past events. For example, “Chairman Mao had planned the purge of Hua Guofeng before his death.” “Chairman Mao had planned Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign before his death.” Or, “Chairman Mao had planned the release of TV series Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroad before his death.”

In a sense, it’s better to tell complete lies than to tell half-truth in China. The rare appearance of Hua, though raised some speculations of whether the Party is ready to open the discussions of Mao’s rights and wrongs during the Cultural Revolution, failed to get much credit from viewers.

The next challenge of the show would be how to depict another two important political figures: Hu Yaobang, Deng’s then designated successor whose death lit the fuse for mass protests in 1989; and Zhao Ziyang, China’s then premier who was later purged and put under house arrest for sympathizing with student protesters of 1989. Both were reformists who advocated market economy, and both have been icons of China’s liberals.

The new TV show may not provide an “authentic depiction” of historical events, but it’s a nice try to de-sensitize some sensitive topics, and offers a rare opportunity to openly discuss China’s “black hole” issues.

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“Chairman Mao had planned to take down the Gang of Four before his death.”

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