Popular Host Suspended by Chinese State Broadcaster for Joke About Mao Zedong

AP Images/Invision

Bi Fujian's satirical comment came during a private dinner song, which also poked fun at the Communist Party.

State-run broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) said it would punish a popular TV host after video footage was released online showing him at a dinner party making fun of the People's Republic of China's founding father, Chairman Mao Zedong.

Bi Fujian, 56, is best known for the talent show Xingguang Dadao he hosts on CCTV, and he has also been a presenter on the Chinese New Year Spring Festival Gala since 2011.

Bi made the remarks while singing a section from the Peking opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, one of the eight plays allowed to be staged in China during the period of ideological frenzy known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Undermining the text's patriotic message, Bi sings: "Don't mention Mao -- he has brought misery to us," and he also says the text contains idle boasts. The footage appears to have been shot on a smartphone and posted online.

The controversy takes place shortly after CCTV appointed a senior member of the country's media watchdog, Nie Chenxi, as its new chief.

China is currently undergoing a return to core socialist values under President Xi Jinping, who believes that "Art must serve socialism and the people, and must not bear "the stench of money" nor be "a slave to the market."

The play tells of a conflict between a People's Liberation Army (PLA) squad and a bandit gang in northeast China during the Chinese revolution, and is based on a novel written in 1957 by Chinese writer Qu Bo.

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy was recently adapted into a blockbuster film by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, with Lin Gengxin, Zhang Hanyu, Tony Leung and Du Yiheng. Musician Brian Eno also made an adaptation of the story in the early 1970s.

On its official Weibo account page, CCTV said it would closely investigate Bi's behavior.

"As a CCTV host, Bi Fujian's remarks in the video have had a major social impact. We will seriously handle the matter in line with related regulations and based on careful investigation," it said.

Chairman Mao, the founder of modern China, is a revered figure. However, he is also blamed for Stalinesque purges, for causing famine with the disastrous agricultural experiment known as the Great Leap Forward, in which millions died, and in orchestrating the Cultural Revolution, an experiment in ideological extremism he kickstarted nearly 50 years ago and in which many of today’s leadership suffered, including President Xi.

Even though Mao was largely responsible for the excesses of those years, the official line is that his legacy is 30 per cent bad, 70 per cent good. The Communist Party he created is still in power since the 1949 revolution – and talking about Mao’s legacy in public is just not done.

At last year's Beijing International Film Festival, filmmaker Oliver Stone caused a stir when he said that China needed to deal with its history and examine the period under Mao, and the Cultural Revolution.

According to the results of an online vote of 12,544 people carried on Sina Weibo, 76.2 percent supported him, 3.7 percent think Bi should be arrested, 9.8 percent think he should be fired, and 10.4 percent think he should not be charged but should publicly apologize.