Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:55 AM CST – China

Politics

CCTV Anchor Scandal

Dinner Party Politics

Video footage of a Chinese television celebrity singing a lewd song mocking Chairman Mao Zedong has rekindled ideological clashes between left and right in China

Bi Fujian in the leaked video

Photo by Xinhua

In recent months, China Central Television (CCTV), China’s State broadcaster, has found itself constantly in the spotlight as a number of high-profile anchors have been making headlines, one way or another.

In 2014, the investigation into several personalities and senior executives including CCTV news anchor Rui Chenggang, following allegations of graft, caused a sensation across the country. Then, in March 2015, Chai Jing, a former CCTV reporter, caused a national storm with the release of a controversial documentary on air pollution, which attracted hundreds of millions of viewers before being pulled from official outlets by State censors.

In early April, Bi Fujian, a popular CCTV anchor, earned more ink for the State broadcaster, after he appeared online in a leaked video purportedly mocking the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, leading to a new round of debate over a variety of issues ranging from the role played by Mao Zedong in China’s recent history to limitations on freedom of speech and the right of public figures to privacy. 

 Viral

Widely known as “Grandpa Bi,” Bi Fujian, 56, enjoys broad popularity thanks to his avuncular on-screen style, a contrast with most CCTV anchors, who are often viewed as stiff and officious. Bi has most recently been hosting the multi-season talent show Avenue of Stars and since 2011 has served as a co-presenter on the broadcaster’s annual variety gala, which has drawn hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers on the Chinese New Year’s Eve.

In the leaked video, which was recorded in a private suite at a restaurant, Bi delivers a rendition of arias from Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the eight “model operas” and ballets approved in the 1960s by former actress Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife. These model operas, which incorporated traditional performance styles and revolutionary socialist-realist content, were the only forms of live theatrical performance officially sanctioned for public exhibition during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

In the footage, Bi interspersed each line from an aria with his own satirical remarks. For example, one line, “the Communist Party! Chairman Mao!” was followed up with “the old son of a bitch has brought calamity to us.” At another point, after singing that “the people’s army, sharing suffering with the people, have come to take Tiger Mountain,” Bi added, “What a boast!”

Following Bi’s performance, his fellow diners, among whom were seated several foreign nationals, are seen to break into laughter and applause. The recording of Bi’s ridicule of Chairman Mao, which soon went viral online, was followed with public outrage.

The apparent presence of Westerners at Bi’s dinner table, initially rumored to be staff from the US and Ukrainian embassies, was used by netizens to connect Bi with the idea of fomenting a color revolution, further complicating his position. It later emerged that Bi’s foreign companions were representatives from the embassy of Belarus.

On April 8, CCTV issued a statement announcing Bi’s suspension. “[Bi’s] comments in this video have serious social consequences,” the statement ran. “We will conduct an investigation and sternly deal with [him] according to the relevant regulations.”

Bi also issued his own statement via his microblog account. “I feel extremely remorseful and sorry, and sincerely offer my apologies to the public,” he said, adding: “As a public figure, I have certainly learned [my] lesson and will exercise strict personal discipline.”

Divided

However, amid widespread condemnation of Bi online and in the State media, strong voices have emerged defending his right to privacy when it comes to his own opinions. For example, novelist Xia Shang wrote on his microblog that the anonymous leaking of the controversial video was  reminiscent of the “informant culture” of the Cultural Revolution, when people would report the “counterrevolutionary” activities and remarks of their friends, co-workers and even their own family members to the authorities.

Others even applauded Bi’s stance on Mao’s mistakes. “To say that Mao brought calamities to the Chinese people is merely stating a fact,” commented one netizen.

According to online survey conducted by ifeng.com which drew over 600,000 responses, 34.2 percent of netizens were “outraged” by Bi’s comments, with 31.7 percent of respondents describing themselves as “sympathetic” towards the beleaguered anchor, and a further 24.8 percent as “disappointed.” Another survey conducted by the news portal sina.com.cn showed that 30.4 percent of respondents supported CCTV’s decision to suspend Bi’s programs, while 50.6 percent disagreed with the move, with the rest being “indifferent.”

Although both surveys were later taken offline, they illustrate the enduring divide in Chinese public opinion over the legacy of Chairman Mao.

Bi is not the first to trigger a national debate over Mao in recent years. In 2013, Mao Yushi (no relation), an independent economist and a persistent critic of China’s late chairman, called for a re-evaluation of Mao’s legacy, a call met with a number of major high-profile protests in which Chairman Mao’s supporters urged that the authorities try Mao Yushi for treason.

The protests stoked online debate between China’s leftists (largely supporters of more traditional strong-state Marxism-Leninism) and rightists (generally liberal social democrats), clashes to which the authorities responded with a crackdown on both sides. While the protesters were dispersed and their websites taken offline, scheduled speeches by Mao Yushi in a number of cities were canceled.

For many Chinese, such as Mao Yushi, Mao Zedong is directly responsible for movements such as the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to simultaneously industrialize China’s agricultural production and completely restructure society through a network of people’s communes. Many historians believe that this failed scheme was the major cause of the Great Famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s during which, according to official statistics, China experienced at least 13.5 million deaths from starvation. Many also blame Mao for the excesses of the  Cultural Revolution, which led to the persecution, torture and murder of an estimated hundred million Chinese.

In contrast, Mao’s supporters portray him as an idealistic revolutionary and blame other forces, such as inept subordinates and, in the case of the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four clique led by Jiang Qing, for most of the calamitous movements of the Mao era. For them, China’s various existing social problems are the direct result of deviating from Mao’s orthodox socialist path.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Party officially ruled, drawing on a statement by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, that Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” Ever since then, public discussion of Mao’s private life, and his responsibility for the political movements launched in his name, remains a political and social taboo.

A major reason for this taboo is that, being the symbol of China’s communist revolution and the founding father of the People’s Republic, Mao’s role has become so intertwined with the legitimacy of the Party’s ruling status, that the Party is concerned that a deeper examination of the Great Helmsman’s historical role in shaping modern China will not only lead to uncomfortable ideological debates, but to some even questioning the Party’s right to rule.

Traitor

Compared to the debate kindled by well-known liberal Mao Yushi, Bi Fujian’s problem is that he works for the State broadcaster expressly charged with maintaining political orthodoxy. Bi’s actions, therefore, have led many to call him a “traitor.”

As the leadership has endeavored to boost the Party’s image in the past couple of years, intellectuals who are themselves Party members, or who work in Party- or government-sponsored institutions, an umbrella that extends to include university professors, writers and journalists working for the official media, are expected to maintain their “integrity” by upholding Party orthodoxy both in and outside the office.

It is argued that people who are on the State payroll should be punished for criticizing the political establishment and undermining the Party’s legitimacy, a phenomenon known as “eating the Party’s lunch while smashing its cookpot.”

This seeming hypocrisy is what State media criticism of Bi’s actions has overwhelmingly highlighted. “Without Mao and the party, would Bi Fujian be able to have his banquets, his successful career and the popularity of the people?” ran a commentary on the website youth.cn, an outlet under the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League.

The Legal Evening News, a newspaper under the Party’s Beijing branch, struck a milder tone. Pointing out that Bi’s actions should not incur criminal charges, an editorial instead argued that Bi, given his position at CCTV, should be expected to bear the “moral and professional consequences.”

The China Supervision for Law and Order Newspaper, the official journal of the Central Commision of Discipline and Inspection (CCDI), China’s anti-corruption watchdog, emphasized that “being a Party member himself, Bi’s insults to the Party’s leader should be subject to the Party’s discpline.”

“The people will wait and see how CCTV will handle this violation of Party discpline,” it continued.

So far, CCTV has not announced its final verdict on Bi’s fate. But as Bi has already been replaced on the show Avenue of Stars, it is widely believed that this former star anchor’s days at CCTV are numbered.

‘As a public figure... I have certainly learned my lesson and will exercise strict personal discipline.’

 

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