If an event finds its way onto the dinner table of my parents-in-law, it means it’s turning into a phenomenon. More so if their own social groups, made of retired former state-owned company employees, who are otherwise immune to cyberspace chitchats, are discussing about it vigorously in their WeChat circles.
The recent misfortune of (former) CCTV variety show host Bi Fujian, falls under this category. On Apr 6, a video clip showing a drunken Bi chanting a modified version of a cultural-revolution-era Peking opera at a private dinner party appeared on the internet and quickly turned into a mega-cyberevent. It was not so much the drunkenness but rather the adaptation that got him into trouble. In the playful and somewhat vulgar adaptation, he referred to Chairman Mao as “that son of a bitch who caused us lots of suffering” and the People’s Liberation Army as “just bluffing.”
Bi’s tremendous fame surely is a definitive factor in the blow-up. He is the host of a prime-time CCTV variety show that promotes grassroots performers. His popularity, especially among a middle aged female audience, wins him the privilege to host the annual CCTV spring festival gala, and the nickname “national grandpa”.
But other elements surrounding the video, the fact that it was leaked from a private party, the reference to Mao, and his communist party membership, played out in a more significant way that shapes the online debate.
Is this just one of those “hot mic” moments where celebrities inadvertently reveal their “real” thoughts? At least the Global Times thinks so. In its Apr 7 editorial, it puts this event in the context of a “globally common phenomenon of leaking celebrities’ private utterances onto the internet”, and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulder of Bi himself (“He has only himself to blame”). In terms of the key elements involved, the incident indeed resembles scandals such as Donald Sterling’s (owner of the NBA basketball team LA Clippers) PRIVATE comments to his girlfriend that he did not want her bringing African Americans to games or taking pictures with them, which led to a big controversy in the United States and Sterling’s removal from the league.
Yet liberal commentator on Weibo still can’t let go of the “private” nature of Bi’s chanting. Some of them see the development as a horrifying infringement of freedom of speech. As scholar Cui Weiping puts it, “We thought in a post-totalitarian era, everybody can say anything in private. As long as you don’t broadcast it, it’s ok.” Some of them go even further by saying that “the bottom line is: speech cannot be punished; thought cannot be policed. If you violate these rules, you are anti-civilization and anti-human.”
By pushing the issue hard as a battle for freedom of speech (in private), liberals provide ammunitions to their criticizers online (who cite the Sterling case as a slap on their faces), and also risk missing the true point of the whole thing: policing a lingering political taboo in the Chinese society.
That’s exactly what the Maoists are trying to do. From the very beginning, their attack on Bi’s denigration of Mao has been politically loaded. “As a CCTV host, Bi’s insult of our founding father, his mockery of the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party is flabbergasting. He himself is a party member and an army veteran. Such a betrayal of one’s faith is thought provoking.” An Op-Ed on the Communist Youth League’s official website goes even further by making it explicit that Mao is the ultimate “political bottom line”: “Mao Zedong is a giant of his era. He is the founder of the People’s Republic… Even if it’s a private party, even if it’s a private space, not everybody, everything can be mocked and satirized like this.”
Dealing with the legacy of a previous leader has always been a thorny issue for an authoritarian regime. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev probably knows it the best when his 1956 secret speech lambasting Stalin unleashed political shock waves all across Eastern Europe. Fully aware of this, China has been very careful in its handling of Mao’s postmortem reputation, even though many of those post-Mao leaders (including Deng Xiaoping and President Xi) had personally suffered from Mao-era political persecutions. It’s within this context that President Xi made his famously dialectic and Newspeakish comment that “we cannot use the past 30 years of history (opening and reform) to negate the party’s 30-year rule before that; neither can we use the previous 30 years (Mao era) to negate the later 30 years.”
By charging aggressively to enforce the political taboo on Mao, conservatives also inadvertently triggered a backlash that is only barely short of an online referendum. It is very clear that many reactions to this incident have been stirred up by the memory of Mao-era horrors. As an 80-year-old college professor writes on his Weibo, “for us old persons, that comment of Bi is just plain truth.” Others invoked the “culture of tattling” that was a feature of Cultural Revolution tragedies where wives tattled on their husbands, and sons tattled on their fathers, just to show their loyalty to the revolutionary cause. One of the posts was sneaky enough to bring the elder Xi (President Xi’s father)’s own experience to the attention of the netizens: “Xi Zhongxun was tattled on by his communist colleague in Shaanxi, and all of a sudden he became an anti-party, anti-Mao element to be banished from power for the next decade.” If comparing a leaked video to Mao-era tattling is a bit far-fetched, the hard-liners’ vituperative diatribes on social media only reinforced the mood. The ultimate moment came when Bi Fujian made his public apology on Weibo on Apr 9. Comments, as many as 100,000 at one point, flooded under his post. And before they were being deleted, a great number of them were in SUPPORT of him. If left untouched, it could easily become an incomplete yet revealing polling of the public’s real take of Mao’s legacy. All the tens of thousands of comments were deleted in a matter of hours.
It is one of those rare occasions when you need to appreciate the restraint shown by official media outlets such as the Global Times. In its signature anti-climax tone, the above mentioned editorial contains passages like this: “If we only use this video to make judgments on Bi’s political leaning, it is obviously unsound. This is not something that should be encouraged after decades of opening and reform… It is also not encouraged to release a celebrity’s private utterances online without his or her consent.” This is where some less melodramatic reading of the event starts to converge. As one coolheaded commentator puts it: “No, this is not going to affect YOUR freedom to say anything at a private party, cuz you are not Bi Fujian. Even if you call the police and tell them you said so, they won’t give a damn. Bi is a state-owned TV station employee and a party member. He is subject to an employee’s code of conduct and party discipline.”
If taboos and political correctness are universal checks against freewheeling speeches, and their very existence does not constitute an infringement of personal rights, then is this Bi controversy much ado about nothing? Maybe not. Not all taboos are equal. And (interestingly) an economist most accurately summarizes the difference:
“In the U.S. you can mock the President in every each way as you like, but never caricature disadvantaged communities such as African Americans. In China, it is ok to say whatever denigrating things about migrant workers or the disabled, but don’t say anything negative about the leaders. If you think this is the same, I have no further comments.”
The latest news says that CCTV has suspended Bi Fujian and has removed his name from the catalogue of CCTV hosts on its official website.