With the weekly talent show of a popular TV host suspended, the episode has provoked a national discussion about freedom of speech, social media, privacy and trust.
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 Zedong — 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 the 76-second 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.”
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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 highlight 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 young people, 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 percent wrong and 70 percent right.” But the party has never encouraged discussion about the 30 percent.
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 so-called Chinese New Left, which calls for 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.
CCTV said the video had “severely impacted society” and 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.
Late Thursday, 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.”