Tea Leaf Nation

A Controversial New TV Series Awakens China's Historical Ghosts

A miniseries on reformist Deng Xiaoping is exposing deeper divisions in Chinese society and its ruling party.

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. 

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Tea Leaf Nation

China Sees Islamic State Inching Closer to Home

Chinese media lights up after a Hong Kong weekly says IS aims to expand into Xinjiang.

They've been grabbing headlines nearly everywhere else, but the jihadis of northern Iraq haven't been getting much play in China. But a threat by the Islamic State (IS) of revenge against countries, including China, for seizing what IS calls "Muslim rights" appears to have changed all that. The comments were made in early July, but the news didn't jump the language barrier from Arabic into Mandarin until August 8, when Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based newsmagazine widely distributed in China, made the IS revenge threats against China its cover story. Since then, the article has been widely syndicated on Chinese news websites and has gained traction on social media as well. Ordinary Chinese who may have felt distant from the carnage now feel it creeping closer to home.  

The glossy cover of the Phoenix issue features a picture of masked gun-toting jihadis advancing through a desert landscape. The piece inside sounds the alarm over a July 4 speech in Mosul, Iraq, by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in which he urged Muslims around the world to pledge their allegiance to him. It quotes Baghdadi saying that "Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine" and more than a dozen other countries and regions. "Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades," Baghdadi told his followers. Phoenix noted that China was mentioned first on Baghdadi's list. (The article also includes a map that some news reports have said shows the vast territory IS plans to occupy in the next five years, which appears to include a significant portion of Xinjiang. Although the authenticity of the map, which was widely shared on English-language social media sites in early July, has been questioned, the Phoenix piece reports it as fact.)

Online, Chinese are both agitated and bemused. One Chinese reader wrote on the social media site Weibo: "This is good. It offends all five of the hooligans on the UN Security Council" -- that is, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- which means the IS jihadis "are going to be roadkill." Another responded to a photo of Baghdadi: "Looking at this bearded pervert makes me sick. Hurry up and incinerate this kind of trash, and send him to enjoy his 72 virgins in heaven." A third wrote that ISIS seemed to have "a death wish," but that people should be grateful because the jihadist group was giving Beijing "a reasoned and evidence-based opportunity to crack down on terrorist activities."

This may constitute a welcome opening for Chinese authorities. China has been fighting a low-level separatist insurgency of its own in Xinjiang for decades and worries that foreign Islamic groups are infiltrating the region, emboldening the simmering independence movement. Uighur exile groups say China's government overstates its terrorism problem and falsely paints protests that turn into riots as premeditated terror attacks. In any case, Beijing is likely alarmed by IS's criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs and the group's alleged plan to seize Xinjiang, no matter how far-fetched the idea might be. But just how actively authorities will deal with any IS threat remains to be seen.

Beijing has consistently tried to keep itself removed from the political and military crises roiling Iraq, even as China has poured billions of dollars into Iraqi oil, enough that about 10 percent of its oil imports come from the Middle Eastern country. China's most decisive action since ISIS's surge has been to evacuate 10,000 Chinese working in Iraq. On July 8, Chinese special envoy Wu Sike met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pledged anti-terror support, but added that Beijing would fully respect the country's sovereignty. When Wu returned to Beijing he briefed reporters about the trip on July 29, telling them that China was a victim of terror with roots in Syria and Iraq. "Solving the conflicts in Iraq and Syria will benefit China and the entire world," he said.

But Beijing's reaction to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq betrays its conflicted allegiances. China usually bristles at or condemns U.S. intervention in global hot spots and has opposed U.S. sanctions against Sudan, Syria, Russia, and Iran. But the interests of Washington and Beijing are unusually closely aligned when it comes to Iraq. On August 8, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying that China was "keeping an open mind" about operations that would "help maintain security and stability" in Iraq. The statement came in response to a request for comment on U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement that the United States would carry out airstrikes against insurgents in northern Iraq. Wang Chong, a researcher at Charhar Institute, a public diplomacy think tank in Beijing, wrote on Weibo that he "firmly supported" the U.S. crackdown on IS. Wang added that the United States "ought to send ground troops to wipe out those brutal terrorists" and that if there was a need, "China could also send troops to help and provide training."

That's possible -- within limits. Zhu Weilie, director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, told the state-run Global Times on July 29 that China believes the United Nations should lead anti-terror operations in the Middle East. "China will be more actively involved in these efforts but will never be as involved in Middle East affairs as the United States," he said.

Sina/Fair Use