Deng’s long shadow

TV biopic on former leader proves popular

Ma Shaohua w

In 1996 the Chinese government drew up new rules about how to commemorate the birth dates of its dead leaders. Former officials were divided into three categories, each with rules on how often and how prominently their members could be remembered.

Mao, unsurprisingly, was granted “category one” status, meaning his birthday would be celebrated every 10 years. Premier Zhou Enlai and President Liu Shaoqi were given “category two” status, which meant they would only receive full honours every 50 years.

The document was drawn up a year before Deng Xiaoping died, so he was not assigned a category himself. Deciding his rank was also complicated. Despite the transformative role that Deng played in shaping modern China, the country’s ‘paramount leader’ never served as president, premier or even head of the ruling Communist Party.

Hence the slightly unorthodox way that the 110th anniversary of his birth was celebrated this month. There was no official ceremony, and on the actual date of Deng’s birth (August 22) President Xi Jinping was in Mongolia.

However, in a tribute to the man dubbed the “chief architect” of China’s economic reforms, the anniversary is being marked by a big-budget TV series covering Deng’s struggles and achievements in the years following his return to power in 1976.

Called Deng Xiaoping at History’s Crossroads and shown at primetime nightly on CCTV, the 48-episode drama is proving popular, especially amongst middle-aged and elderly Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution and the post-reform era.

“I’m so happy that Crossroads is being shown. I make my son watch it every night so he will know how we lived as children and to teach him that the happiness we have today is earned,” a man from Anhui wrote on weibo.

Another offered: “This show is tense and real, we should watch it to feel Deng’s incredible life.”

Crossroad’s success is no accident. The series was five years in the making and cost Rmb120 million ($19.5 million) to produce. It is packed with high-profile performers, some of whom are said to have refused payment because it was such an honour to take part.

But despite all of the hype, the lead actor Ma Shaohua seems too tall to be Deng’s lookalike (at 1.72 metres, Ma is 20cm bigger than Deng). The project has other failings too, especially in avoiding some of the most controversial chapters in Deng’s political career. Crossroads begins in 1976, skipping to the end of Deng’s political exile during the Cultural Revolution. Thus it sidesteps how Deng managed to get back to power after two periods of political exile during the Cultural Revolution. The programme also ends in 1984, not mentioning the turmoil at the end of the 1980s, but culminating with Deng’s signing of the Joint Declaration with the British, which agreed to hand Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

The chief scriptwriter Long Pingping, from the Party’s Literature Research Centre, told Xinhua that “the history after 1984 is too difficult to be drawn” and that some events “could be written in books but would be very difficult to dramatise” on TV.

The show’s watchability may disguise more topical political goals too – notably the message that reform under the guidance of the right leader can bring huge benefits to society at large.

As Xi Jinping pushes ahead with his own plans to further liberalise the Chinese economy and crack down on corruption, parallels with Deng may serve him well.

In a lengthy commentary on the significance of Deng’s reforms published this week, the People’s Daily rather laboured the point: “The success of reform and opening up has incontrovertibly proved that it is the only way for contemporary China to uphold its route to Socialism and achieve the great rejuvenation of our nation and the Chinese dream.”

China Youth Daily put it more bluntly: “If the explicit meaning of this show is to celebrate Deng’s birthday, its hidden meaning is to promote a policy of reform and opening up even in the context of a complex environment at home and abroad.”

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