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A song and dance in China

By Brian Hennessy - posted Wednesday, 6 July 2011


What can we make of the reappearance of Maoist-era revolutionary rhetoric in China?

This phenomenon was first noticed in Chongqing, China's gateway to the west which is situated on the Yangtze River upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. This is the heartland of China.

It is also the fiefdom of Bo Xilai, son of one of China's revolutionary immortals and a rising star who has his sights set on promotion to the politburo when a new generation of leaders is elected next year. Bo Xilai is the party secretary of Chongqing.

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Shortly after his arrival, Bo Xilai stamped his mark on this municipality of 31 million people by implementing a campaign against corruption. The campaign was needed, and it netted high profile government and police officers as well as members of the local mafia. Cynics however, saw his campaign as a means of self-promotion rather than as a genuine desire to clean up Chongqing. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

After the execution of the main offenders and the resignation of the mayor who purported to know nothing about the depth of corruption in his city on his watch, some strange things began to happen. For example, text messages of Maoist revolutionary slogans suddenly began appearing on residents' mobile phones. "Where did that come from?" seemed to be the consensus of opinion on the streets.

Then a local satellite TV station morphed into a propaganda vehicle for old leftist nostalgia. Calling itself China Red, this medium is now a political organ of the local Municipal Party Committee rather than an advertising-driven semi-independent entity.

The commercial result? Chongqing Satellite TV has seen its ratings fall from forth position in 2008, to twentieth position in 2010. Never mind. At the two meetings of the National Peoples' Congress and the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Congress in 2010, then president Li Xiaofeng said: "Audience ratings are the root of all evil in our country's television sector."

At face value, perhaps he has a point. Australian free-to-air television has a lot to answer for in terms of dumbing down our national culture. However, he let the cat out of the bag when he proposed the creation of an audience rating system that is more suited to, "the unique system of our country." Everybody knows what that means.

Today, Chongqing Satellite TV is building its China Red brand by showing more cultural variety shows, classic Party dramas, and programs such as: 'Sing/Read/Speak/Convey,' which is a shortening of the old slogan: 'singing red, reading (Party) classics, telling (Party) stories, and passing along (Party) maxims'. Heroic revolutionary themes have replaced popular entertainment.

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It seems that Maoist revolutionary propaganda is making a tentative official comeback.

All of this begs the obvious question: Why this flirtation with revolutionary era populism? (e.g., communal singing of old revolutionary songs, the resurrection of Cultural Revolution dance, the display of old revolutionary slogans in public places and so on) – particularly when this embarrassing period in China's recent history is one which the Party would prefer to forget.

And who is going along for this ride back into the past, which according to the party's own record of history is best forgotten?

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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