Mao parody song gets harsh reverberations
TV host sparks debate about Chinese leader, social media, privacy and dinner etiquette.
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.”
POPULAR CHINESE TV host Bi Fujian, shown in 2013, may lose his job because of his satirical performance. “I feel extremely remorseful,” he said.