Mao and Militarization at China's Spring Festival Gala

China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala, which bills itself as “the most watched television event in the world,” was heavy on Cultural Revolution images this year. The show, a five-hour variety program airing the evening of January 30th, featured a performance of a portion of The Red Detachment of Women, one of the “eight model plays” endorsed by the notorious Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife and ringleader of the Gang of Four. The host of the event, Zhu Jun, appeared in Mao-like apparel to introduce the much-discussed segment.

There were other propagandistic elements to this year’s gala, such as the patriotic “My Chinese Dream,” a song reinforcing one of the major themes of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s rule. Organizers also included two revolutionary ballads. That there was propaganda in CCTV’s show is not news. It is noteworthy, however, that the state broadcaster reached back in such a heavy-handed way to Maoist times.

Why did Beijing authorities do so? The most obvious theory is that Xi wanted to placate the Communist Party’s “leftists,” especially because he had imprisoned Bo Xilai, who made a name for himself by promoting “Red” themes while governing the metropolis of Chongqing.

Qiao Mu of Beijing Foreign Studies University has raised another, more chilling, theory. “The arrangement of military elements throughout the show was political, and in line with the prevalent conservatism over the past year—to silence public discontent and to appease the army,” Qiao told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

Silencing public discontent is routine for the regime, but appeasing the army is not. The dominant narrative among foreign observers is that Xi, who became China’s supremo in November 2012, has quickly consolidated control over the People’s Liberation Army. Talk about trying to placate the top brass, however, does not fit easily with that storyline and suggests the party does not necessarily “control the gun,” to use a Maoist phrase popular among Beijing figures.

There is no clear answer whether Xi is the master of the military or whether the military is the master of Xi. In the murky—and complicated—elite politics of the party, we will not know for sure for some time. Yet, in the meantime, the images of stern-faced young women in Maoist military garb aiming rifles and thrusting swords are unsettling and suggest not all is well in the Chinese capital.

Do the Chinese people care about the evident revival of Maoism? It’s clear the Great Helmsman, as the first leader of the People’s Republic is known, has become a symbol of simpler, less corrupt times and, as a result, has gained popularity in recent years. People can feel nostalgia without endorsing Mao’s abhorrent political views or his disastrous policies, and some think that is in fact what is happening.

In the days after the gala, popular criticism has focused not so much on the inclusion of Cultural Revolution themes as the show’s lack of entertainment value. Among other things, the event lacked the humor evident in previous years. In a survey, 57.5 percent of respondents said they were “disappointed” in the gala this year.

Last year, about 750 million Chinese tuned into the CCTV show and another 209 million watched online. This year, the number of viewers was, in all probability, slightly smaller, as the show has steadily lost popularity. That is inevitable in a modernizing China, but Maoist images, especially to the younger segments of society, must seem hopelessly out-of-date. “The gala is a joyful occasion where people gather for celebrating,” said Qiao Mu. “These shows with such strong ideological colors simply do not fit in.”

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