Mao par­ody song gets harsh re­ver­ber­a­tions

TV host sparks de­bate about Chi­nese leader, so­cial me­dia, pri­vacy and din­ner eti­quette.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - BY JULIE MAKI­NEN julie.maki­nen@la­times.com Ni­cole Liu, Tommy Yang and Har­vard Zhang in The Times’ Bei­jing bureau con­trib­uted to this re­port.

BEI­JING — You can think of Bi Fu­jian as China’s mod­ern-day Dick Clark: the popular, every­man host of a weekly TV tal­ent show and a familiar face an­chor­ing the most-watched New Year’s pro­gram.

But af­ter en­ter­tain­ing friends at a pri­vate ban­quet with a snarky song crit­i­ciz­ing Mao Tse-tung — a per­for­mance cap­tured by one at­tendee’s cell­phone cam­era — Bi this week found him­self in a Brian Wil­liams-sized brouhaha.

In his ren­di­tion of “The Tak­ing of Tiger Moun­tain,” a 1950s rev­o­lu­tion­ary opera song, Bi, 56, in­serted some sharp com­men­tary, in­clud­ing re­fer­ring to the found­ing fa­ther of Com­mu­nist China as a “son of a bitch” and re­mark­ing that “he re­ally hurt us bit­terly.”

Bi’s fel­low din­ers laughed, clapped and kept time with their chop­sticks as he sang, but at the end of the tune, Bi asked them to keep any record­ings of the gag to them­selves. Yet as cell­phone videos are wont to do, the 76sec­ond clip ended up on­line and went vi­ral, prompt­ing Bi’s em­ployer, state-run CCTV, to sus­pend broad­casts of his sig­na­ture show, “Av­enue of the Stars.”

The episode has pro­voked a na­tional dis­cus­sion about free­dom of speech, so­cial me­dia, pri­vacy and trust, with some see­ing it as an omi­nous re­turn to the Mao-era cul­ture of in­form­ing on any­one crit­i­cal of the Com­mu­nist Party.

“To ex­pose the video of a pri­vate din­ner de­stroys the ba­sic trust in this world,” Wang Zhian, a for­mer re­porter and colum­nist, wrote Tues­day. “The im­por­tance of such trust is be­yond ide­ol­ogy.... Those who de­value other peo­ple’s pri­vacy with po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness are fas­cists in na­ture.”

The up­roar over the video and its post­ing also high­lights how nearly 40 years af­ter Mao’s death, China is still strug­gling to come to grips with his le­gacy.

Tens of mil­lions of Chi­nese died dur­ing the largely man-made famine of Mao’s 1958-61 Great Leap For­ward cam­paign, and his 1966-76 Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion was a lost decade dur­ing which schools were closed, ed­u­cated elites were per­se­cuted, and tem­ples and an­tiq­ui­ties were de­stroyed. Mil­lions of youths, Bi in­cluded, were “sent down” to the coun­try­side to do man­ual la­bor.

Af­ter Mao’s death, in par­tial ac­knowl­edg­ment of his er­rors, the Com­mu­nist Party fa­mously de­clared him “30% wrong and 70% right.” But the party has never en­cour­aged dis­cus­sion about the 30%. Even now, the dark­est as­pects of the Mao era re­ceive scant at­ten­tion.

At the same time, many older Chi­nese — par­tic­u­larly those who have been left be­hind in the coun­try’s tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism — are nos­tal­gic for the more equal, if poorer, days of the com­mu­nist econ­omy.

Just who was re­spon­si­ble for shar­ing Bi’s tune with the whole of China re­mains un­clear. Sus­pi­cion has fallen on Zhang Qing, sec­re­tary of an on­line ed­u­ca­tion agency that of­fers cour­ses run by Kong Qing­dong, a hard-core na­tion­al­ist. Kong, who claims to be a de­scen­dant of Con­fu­cius, is a con­tro­ver­sial aca­demic, au­thor, talk show host and fig­ure of the so­called Chi­nese New Left, which calls for a re­ver­sal of mar­ket eco­nomic re­forms and a re­turn to Mao-style poli­cies.

Zhang said Wed­nes­day that he didn’t know Bi and had never dined with him, but de­nounced Bi for caus­ing “great harm” to Mao and ac­cused him of de­fam­ing the party and the army.

Zhan Jiang, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at Bei­jing For­eign Stud­ies Uni­ver­sity, said it was un­clear whether the video was posted in­no­cently or with more sin­is­ter in­ten­tions.

“But new me­dia is grow­ing so fast in China, it’s clear there will be more cases like this,” he said.

CCTV said that the video had “se­verely im­pacted so­ci­ety” and that Bi would be “se­ri­ously” in­ves­ti­gated. Bi’s re­moval came the same week that CCTV got a new pres­i­dent, Nie Chenxi, who is re­garded as a hard-liner.

But Zhan said he be­lieved the de­ci­sion to sus­pend Bi was made by party of­fi­cials far above Nie’s level.

It is un­likely, Zhan said, that Bi will re­turn to his show, but the beloved fig­ure known as “Grandpa Bi” prob­a­bly won’t face any harsher pun­ish­ment.

“I would call him lucky com­pared to some In­ter­net users in China who have landed in jail for their commentaries,” Zhan said. “The worst that will prob­a­bly hap­pen to him is he’ll be sacked from CCTV.”

In an on­line vote con­ducted by the In­ter­net por­tal Sina, 53.6% of re­spon­dents said Bi did not de­serve to be pun­ished and 30% said CCTV should dis­ci­pline him.

The Shang­hai Morn­ing Post said the ex­po­sure of Bi’s crit­i­cal song threat­ened the coun­try’s tra­di­tional din­ner cul­ture, dur­ing which count­less Chi­nese build so­cial and busi­ness net­works, of­ten over shots of liquor.

“Imag­ine from now on, ev­ery­one at pri­vate din­ners will keep a poker face and re­peat the same of­fi­cial speech as in the of­fice, such as, ‘Com­rades and friends, let’s us have a toast to the great achieve­ment of com­mu­nism,’ ” the pa­per wrote. “Peo­ple will find it hard to adapt.”

On Thurs­day night, Bi took to his page on the Weibo mi­croblog­ging site to ex­press re­morse.

“My per­sonal com­ments have caused se­ri­ous neg­a­tive in­flu­ence and I feel ex­tremely re­morse­ful and pained,” he wrote. “I sin­cerely apol­o­gize to the public. I will learn the les­son and re­strict my­self as a public fig­ure.”

But for some who had re­garded Bi as lit­tle more than a play-to-the-masses celebrity, his cut­ting, tune­ful com­men­tary has led them to reeval­u­ate him in a more pos­i­tive light.

“I never knew Bi Fu­jian was ac­tu­ally a free thinker with an in­de­pen­dent per­son­al­ity,” one com­menter wrote on­line. “I re­gret that I did not re­spect him in the past.”

Chi­naFo­toPress

POPULAR CHI­NESE TV host Bi Fu­jian, shown in 2013, may lose his job be­cause of his satir­i­cal per­for­mance. “I feel ex­tremely re­morse­ful,” he said.

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