China Screens 48-Episode Documentary About Deng Xiaoping

The epic propaganda marathon will break some taboos, state media says

Last weekend saw one of the biggest TV events of the year in China with the screening of the first part of a 48-episode documentary about Deng Xiaoping, the late supreme leader credited with starting reforms that transformed the country.

Deng Xiaoping at History's Crossroad bowed Friday on China Central Television (CCTV). These state-sponsored TV epics are closely monitored by filmmakers and importers of overseas content to see if there are any signs of censorship being relaxed to allow more critical views, something which would improve the environment for filmmakers trying to get movies shown in China.

While the show is essentially propaganda for the ruling Communist Party, state media said it would break some taboos by featuring “sensitive figures,” or political leaders who have dared to challenge China's single-party rule, such as former leaders Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang.

Chinese propaganda movies such as Founding of a Great Republic have become a lot more slick in recent years. Transformers: Age of Extinction, which has taken in more than $300 million in China, also contained positive messages about the Beijing government, presumably aimed at appeasing the censors and boosting the film’s chances in the world’s second-biggest film market.

Although less than five feet tall, Deng was a giant who dominated Chinese politics after the Cultural Revolution, a period of ideological frenzy unleashed by the founding father of the People’s Republic, Chairman Mao Zedong.

The decision to broadcast a show about a leader famous for his economic reforms has major repercussions, as it comes at a time when the current leader of the country, Xi Jinping, has promised to introduce economic reforms.

Deng, who served as president from 1978 to 1989, was famously quoted as saying “To get rich is glorious,” and his decision to open up the economy laid the groundwork for more than three decades of astonishing economic growth.

Deng was also instrumental in the brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters in June 1989, and the TV shows cover his rule only as far as 1984.

“While it is broadcast as an expected part of the nationwide commemoration activities, the TV series also comes at a time when China's reform is experiencing 'uncharted waters,' ” Yin Yungong, an expert on the socialist system at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times newspaper.

The Xi administration is keen to boost the legitimacy of his government’s anti-corruption campaign by presenting it as being part of Deng’s legacy.