The Chinese regime’s annual Lunar New Year gala broadcast on state television has once again drawn ire for what viewers felt was its blatant propaganda.
Every year, CCTV puts on a pageantry of song, dance, and comedy sketches praising the Chinese Communist Party. Lampooning the show’s overtly political messages and tasteless performances has also become a national sport for many viewers.
Chinese netizens have recently called into question a Ming Dynasty-era (1368—1644) painting that was unveiled during the gala.
According to the Chinese regime, the painting, a 30-meter long landscape scroll painted on silk, is a Chinese cartographic depiction of the Silk Road route from the western frontiers of the Chinese empire through Central Asia and the present-day Middle East—including Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
It belonged to the Ming imperial court, but after the fall of the last imperial Qing dynasty, the painting made its way into the streets and was purchased by a Japanese tycoon from an old antique store in the 1930s. In 2002, the painting was bought by a Chinese collector. In November 2017, Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Hui Wing Mau purchased the painting and donated it to the Palace Museum in Beijing. The painting has since been named “Landscape Map of the Silk Road.”
At the time, the Chinese regime touted the painting’s return as an act of auspicious timing because of the new ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative underway. Launched by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013, it is a massive infrastructure project meant to connect the former Silk Road countries—and a means of bolstering China’s geopolitical influence.
At the gala broadcast on Feb. 15, the Palace Museum’s director Shan Jixiang explained that the painting depicts the Silk Road and at the very far corner, the city of Mecca. He called it a “groundbreaking” find.
But soon after, netizens questioned the veracity of Shan’s statements. Some noted that the term ‘Silk Road’ did not come into use until German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined it during the 18th century.
One user on WeChat, a popular Chinese instant messaging and social media platform, pointed out the similarities between the map painting and an existing Qing imperial court painting, suggesting that the two were copies of a yet unidentified original, and thus may not be as historically significant as Shan suggested. The user, who often posts about Chinese history, analyzed similarities in placement of geographical markers on both paintings.
The Chinese regime also calls the painting “Mongolia landscape painting,” which again drew questions from netizens, who noted that during the Ming dynasty, the different Mongol tribes who roamed areas of central Asia would not have been referred to as “Mongolia.”
The user lamented that scholars in China now have to do work that justifies the state’s propaganda narrative instead of real scholarship. “Whatever the higher-ups like, they try to prove at all costs,” he wrote.
Many comments on Sina Weibo, a platform similar to Twitter, were soon blocked and deleted. Any screenshots or video segments were also deleted, with a “copyright infringement” warning showing up.
According to Deutsche Welle, China’s National Copyright Administration sent out a notice on Feb. 12 forbidding any photos, videos, or audio of the 2018 CCTV gala from being spread online.
However, on Weibo, if one tries to type in search results about criticism of the gala, such as using keywords like “gala disgusting,” or “roasting the gala” in Chinese, an error message will appear: “according to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, these search results will not appear.” Thus, whether or not there are copyright issues, the criticism of CCTV’s gala has been silenced by Chinese authorities.
Ling Yun and Chen Han contributed to this report.