Officials in China are coming down hard on a popular former China Central Television (CCTV) host.  Earlier this year a television host from CCTV was filmed at a private event mocking former Chairman Mao Zedong with the video of it later made publicly available online. The response form Chinese officials was instant though now over four months later, harsher punishment for the presenter is being called for. Chairman Mao is a divisive figure in China and though some of his policies have been officially critiqued, he is still viewed favorably by the majority of the population. This move by China’s authorities against criticism of Mao is one more indication some contend of the increasingly hardline repressive atmosphere of President Xi Jinping’s government.

Criticism of Chairman Mao not tolerated in China

The Comment

The man behind the comments is Bi Fujian. Bi is well known in China as the former host of Star Boulevard, a singing competition show in the same style as American Idol and he has also hosted the annual the New Year’s Gala produced by CCTV since 2011.The incident with Bi took place earlier in April at a private banquet when he sang and parodied parts of a Mao-era opera. Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy was one of the few operas allowed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and is based on a real 1946 incident where a communist soldier infiltrated a group of bandits.

The controversy is rooted in comments that Bi interjected into the lyrics, “The Communist Party, Chairman Mao – Ugh, let’s not talk about this son of a bitch any longer, he’s caused us so much suffering.” Additionally he also used a vulgar Chinese insult that includes a reference to female genitals. In the video, Bi’s actions are met with laughter by the predominantly Chinese audience though that same laughter would be absent from the government in its response.

The video of Bi which it is believed was filmed by a smartphone, was uploaded to Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging website, on April 6. Immediately the video attracted widespread attention and received over 100,000 comments within the first hour it was posted.  Bi apologized the following day stating on his Weibo account, “I feel guilty and sorry for my comments which left a negative impact on society. I hereby offer to the public my deepest regrets. As a public figure, I have learned my lesson and will observe self-discipline.”

Despite Bi apologizing, CCTV suspended him for four days and announced that it would “seriously handle the matter in line with related regulations and based on careful investigation”. CCTV further stated that Bi’s remarks had had a “major social impact.”

Response by the Government

Initially Bi was suspended for four days but that suspension became permanent. Authorities in China have worked diligently to remove many shows of online support for Bi on Weibo and other sites. This is nothing new as the government has in the past removed comments and discussions on sensitive issues. Additionally, the government issued the following warning,  “All websites are to find and delete the indecent video of Bi Fujian parodying a song from ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.’  Also delete the Youth.cn article ‘Bi Fujian Owes the People an Apology.’ Cool down related discussions, and stop hyping the story.” The video though remains on Youtube and has over 480,000 views.

On Sunday, August 9th, the China Discipline Inspection Daily, a newspaper under the party’s anti-graft watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), said that discipline inspectors found that Bi had violated “political discipline” in harming Mao’s image. The SAPPRFT believes that in criticizing Mao, Bi’s actions rose above general misconduct to something more serious. Because of this, the SAPPRFT has ordered CCTV to deal with the matter “severely” and to educate its staff to prevent such mistakes from occurring in the future.

In addition, Bi’s title as an ambassador of a national education project was revoked for “causing irrevocably baneful influence” on students in the project while he has been replaced by another host on Star Boulevard. The response to the most recent comments by the SAPPRFT have been mixed. Some have shown support for the government, claiming that Bi’s comments were not only vulgar but disrespectful to the founder of modern China. On the other hand, some see a government that is growing increasingly repressive in its response made against a man who criticized a leader who was responsible for the deaths of millions over 40 years ago.

Mao’s Legacy

Even though some of Mao’s policies have been officially critiqued, the ruling Communist Party in China is in no position to renounce him.  The legitimacy of the party itself rests upon the imagery surrounding Mao. This is despite the actions of Mao during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s which saw the deaths of millions of Chinese. To completely renounce Mao is to in essence, renounce the Communist Party itself. Furthermore under President Xi, China has seen its political climate gradually tighten to prevent criticism of Communist Party officials. Most recently was the massive roundup of human rights lawyers in late July.

The actions taken by authorities in China in some ways seems heavy handed. The comments made by Bi, though made available to the public by being posted online, were made at a private dinner and not on state-run television. While the video gained many views in a short period of time, authorities could have just as easily removed it from websites rather than making a public issue out of it. Perhaps the government wanted to send a message that such activity, criticism of leading Communist Party officials even from the past, is unacceptable. It is also possible that the government was after Bi for something else and this provided the perfect cover. Regardless, Bi has been off the air for over four months and it remains to be seen what his punishment will be.