'Deng' and 'Lee' on TV

A new television series on late China strongman Deng Xiaoping, which also features former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in a scene, has won praise for China's first-ever depictions of politically sensitive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) figures and events.

Deng is played by Ma Shaohua, 59, while Zhang Guangbei, 55, who has acted in drama serials like Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, plays Mr Lee in a scene that appears to be a Beijing meeting with Deng. It is unclear how much Mr Lee figures in the serial.

Analysts said the 48-episode drama serial, which premiered last Friday, could be an attempt by the party propaganda machine to draw comparisons between President Xi Jinping and Deng, of how both dismantled powerful factions and pushed reforms.

Current affairs commentator Cai Fanghua believes the drama serial carries a political message that reforms spearheaded by Deng will continue even as the current leadership under Mr Xi intensifies its anti-corruption efforts.

"This is the show's subliminal message: Regardless of the current resistance or future challenges, the reform policies started by Deng and fine-tuned by generations of leaders will press on with determination," wrote Mr Cai in his blog last Saturday.

The serial - titled Deng Xiaoping At History's Crossroads, and produced to mark his 110th birth anniversary on Aug 22 - has made the news for its portrayal of former CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang and Mao Zedong's successor-designate Hua Guofeng.

Mr Hua was key in toppling the "Gang of Four" led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who rose to power during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. He was later sidelined by Deng, who died in 1997.

Mr Hu's stint as CCP chief ended in 1987 after incurring the displeasure of party elders like Deng for moving too fast with reforms. His death in April 1989 sparked student-led protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square that led to a bloody crackdown known as the Tiananmen incident.

Party historians who have watched previews of the drama believe its portrayals of top party figures and the high-level power struggles will "give a renewed perspective on history".

Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper, quoting an insider, reported that late CCP chief Zhao Ziyang, ousted after the Tiananmen incident and not seen in public nor in state media till his death in 2005, may also appear in the serial.

Netizens and viewers are lapping up the serial, which is shown on weeknights at 8pm by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). Two episodes, each about an hour long, are shown nightly.

"I'm quite surprised. After this precedent, I believe more taboo subjects will be opened up in future. This is progress," netizen Huang Shengyou wrote on his Sina Weibo microblog account.

Viewership rates for the first episode last Friday hit 1.88 per cent and the second peaked at 2.88 per cent. Viewership of above 1 per cent is rare in China.

CCTV produced the serial with guidance from the CCP's literature research office and the provincial committee of Sichuan, where Deng was born.

The serial focuses on Deng's life and work from Oct 6, 1976, when the Gang of Four was purged, until China's 35th National Day on Oct 1, 1984, when China was deemed to have fully implemented the policy of reform and opening up that Deng launched in 1978.

It took about three months to produce although preparations, which included interviews with Deng's family, lasted seven years. The show reportedly cost 120 million yuan (S$24.4 million), the same amount spent on the 100-episode serial on Mao's life, which was screened last December to mark his 120th birth anniversary.

Reflecting the sensitivities, the producers sent more than 10,000 copies of the show to various party and government agencies of all levels for approval and checks.

Still, the show has already drawn brickbats. Some believe the show's timeline stopped at 1984 so it would not include Deng's role in the Tiananmen incident.

Others deride the show for distorting facts. For instance, Deng said in the drama that he could "still work for 20 years" when he heard that the Gang of Four had fallen, but history shows he actually said "Now I can spend my remaining years in comfort".

This article was first published on August 12, 2014.
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