A short video showing a popular Chinese state news anchor singing and making fun of Mao Zedong at a private dinner went viral on China’s Internet recently. The incident and its fallout showed at once the regime’s fragile grip on its founding leader’s tarnished legacy, and also how swift and harsh punishment can be for Party apostates who joke about the matter.
Mao is the founding leader of communist China. Though his political thought and legacy has long since been sullied (his fanatical political campaigns led to tens of millions of deaths), open criticism—especially from a member of the Party run media elite—is still heavily circumscribed.
The 76-second video shows Bi Fujian, the China Central Television anchor, with friends at a restaurant, singing songs from the propaganda opera “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.” One of the other dinner guests kept a beat with chopsticks on the table. Between verses, Bi interjects sarcastic comments about the Chinese communist movement, as well as its former leader.
After the video was uploaded to Sina Weibo, a popular social media platform, on April 6, it quickly spread before being purged by censors.
“What harm that old son of a [expletive] Mao has brought to us!” Bi remarks after finishing a song titled “Communist Party Chairman Mao.”
Following a verse from the verbosely titled piece “Dark Clouds Disperse Where the Red Flag Flies, People in Liberated Regions Stand Up After Overthrowing the Landlords”—Bi asks, “What did the landlords ever do to you?”
At the final line—”The people and army suffer hardships together to take Tiger Mountain”—Bi laughs off the claim: “Showing off!”
In the heavily controlled Chinese political atmosphere, for a prominent media personality such as Bi Fujian to lampoon the communist past, even as a joke, is striking. Bi may not have intended that the video be posted, which was recorded at the dinner table by an unknown person using a cellphone camera. The dating of the video is unknown.
While pro-Party Internet users condemned Bi as a traitor, others came out in support, agreeing with his assessments and defending his free speech.
“I never know that Bi Fujian was actually a free thinker with an independent personality. I regret my lack of respect for him in the past,” one user wrote.
Another said, “His remarks just show that he’s a normal person with normal thinking.”
Liu Yiran, a Chinese writer and film director, harked on Bi’s supposed treachery: “The CCTV host Bi Fujian even used a revolutionary opera to insult our founding leader and ridicule the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Army. How shocking! He’s even a Party member and a former soldier himself. What an explicit way for him to betray his faith!”
The Communist Party, no surprise, is in agreement with Liu. On April 8, CCTV published an announcement saying that Bi was to be “seriously” investigated for his speech, as reported by Chinese online news service Caixin.
“As a CCTV host, Bi Fujian’s speech in the online video has severely impacted society,” the announcement reads.
CCTV has suspended all programs hosted by Bi or featuring him as a guest talker between April 8 and April 12, according to the Hong Kong-based Phoenix magazine.
In past decades, the Chinese Communist Party has been facing a crisis of faith. As joining the Party is in practice the only way to climb up the ladder in officialdom and in state-run business ventures, it has become common to seek membership for money and power rather than ideology. But for those who say the emperor has no clothes, punishment still awaits.