Chinese TV series on former leader Deng Xiaoping offers rare glimpse of turmoil

For a government that controls official history as zealously as China’s ruling Communist Party, the past is often laden with land mines.

So viewers here were shocked when state broadcasters began airing a 48-episode docudrama on the life of China’s former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, including periods of political turmoil that have rarely before been broached so publicly.

To much of the outside world, Deng is often associated with his sanctioning of military force against democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — a still-taboo topic avoided by the series. But within China, Deng is mainly known for jump-starting China’s now booming market economy and opening it to the outside world. Deng died in 1997 at age 92.

Ostensibly, the show, which aired its first episode Friday, is meant to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Deng’s birth. But given the opaque nature of the Communist Party, many have watched the series trying to parse hidden signals about shifts in the party leaders’ thinking.

Some viewers think the Deng series indicates a loosening of the party’s white-knuckle grip on sensitive historical episodes. On Chinese social media, such proponents have pointed out how even leaders purged by the party — including politically freighted figures such as onetime party chairman Hua Guofeng and liberal-minded former leader Hu Yaobang — are depicted in the show.

“In recent years, China’s restricted areas of speech have obviously decreased,” read an editorial Monday in the state-run Global Times newspaper. “This series marks significant progress.”

But others have argued that even though such historically controversial figures appear, the series largely repeats the same theme of most communist propaganda: the wisdom, benevolence and admirable qualities of the party and the victors of its internal factional fights.

One reason the new Deng series has drawn such political scrutiny is because many think that the way current party leaders reframe history often indicates their philosophy about the country’s policies and future direction.

Within the party, there are clear signs of how seriously the TV show is being taken. Its production costs totaled $19.5 million, and more than 10,000 copies were sent to government leaders and researchers to get their opinions before its release, according to state-run media.

Moreover, the overseas edition of the party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper printed a cryptic editorial two days after the show’s premiere to explain its importance. The editorial used the fall of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale and argued that one key mistake of later Soviet leaders was their criticism of founding fathers.

“How to appraise historical figures has always been a very important topic in the party’s political life,” it said. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “total repudiation” of Joseph Stalin “triggered the internal split of the Soviet Union,” the editorial said, adding: “It is a lesson to draw for the Communist Party of China.”

China “would never be as stupid as Khrushchev,” whose repudiation of Stalin “shook the foundation of their rule,” the paper said. “This is the historical wisdom that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has.”

Xi has outlined his philosophy on how China’s past leaders should be viewed. In a speech for founding father Mao Zedong’s 120th birth anniversary in December, Xi said: “Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings; [we] cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors just because they are great; neither can we totally repudiate them and erase their historical feats just because they made mistakes.”

Given those parameters, Deng must have presented a tricky challenge to the producers of the TV series.

Aside from Mao, no leader has had a greater hand in shaping China’s communist republic than Deng.

He was purged by Mao during China’s Cultural Revolution for having opposing opinions on economic policy. His oldest son, Deng Pufang, was tortured by radical party youths, tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a building and became paralyzed.

Although he was never officially the country’s president, Deng became China’s paramount leader after Mao’s death, with the power to appoint and remove its leaders for two decades. And his reforms helped China develop a market economy, open the country to international commerce and set up a two-decade period of booming growth.

The show’s producers, however, limited their focus to the period of 1976 to 1984, which neatly sidestepped two major controversies of Deng’s life: his purge and fallout with Mao as well as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Liu Liu contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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