A superstar of Chinese television has apologised excessively in recent days after a video emerged of him entertaining guests at a private dinner party with a selection of controversial witticisms. His target: Chairman Mao. Bi Fujian’s expression of regret seems rather theatrical for true sincerity. Acknowledging the ‘detrimental impact on society’ of his comments, Bi wrote on his blog: ‘I sincerely offer my deep apology to the public. As a public figure, I will learn from this, and exercise strict self-discipline’.

Bi has, since 2012, hosted the Chinese State TV’s annual New Year variety show, said to be the most watched television show on earth. Thus his prominence in Chinese popular culture is highly evident. In the video, which fleetingly circulated the globe six times and was taken offline, Bi is seen singing a personal adaptation of the undisputedly catchy Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) anthem, found in one of eight model plays allowed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Bi changes a number of the song’s words, adding, ‘we’ve suffered enough’. Of the founder of modern China himself, Bi cries: ‘the old son of a bitch, he tormented us!’

Two things remain clear from this episode. Firstly, Mao is still deeply respected and revered in modern China, despite the just criticisms that have been voiced since his death about his tumultuous Cultural Revolution. Secondly freedom of expression remains sharply curtained in a country that values discipline above all else.

Profuse apologies aside, a short glance at the early life of Bi Fujian adds some flesh to his scathing dinner party performance. In 1976, at the tender age of just 17, Bi was subsumed into the large-scale propulsion of China’s urban youth into the countryside to work on agricultural land. This was called the Down to the Countryside Movement and Bi was a so-called ‘sent-down youth’.

The rustication of the Chinese youth took place on enormous proportions. Indeed, nearly eighteen million adolescents were displaced between 1962 and 1979. Those at university had their places suspended and those in employment lost their jobs; all were forced to leave behind their families and urban lives to carry out tough agrarian work. In 1978 these youths called strikes and petitions in an effort to overturn the policy; Mao himself was compelled to re-examine the policy, but millions continued to be rusticated every year. In the murky but highly illuminating body of scar literature which emerged following Mao’s death, steady references are made to the suffering incurred by a generation of sent-down youths.

The movement’s rationale was faulty. Mao himself described the countryside as ‘a vast expanse of heaven and earth where we can flourish’. He added: ‘we have two hands, let us not laze in the city’. Given China’s enormous growth under Mao’s successor Deng, this rural emphasis appears shortsighted. China’s whirlwind development in recent decades has been characterised by the huge migration of rural populations to its cities; as a result China’s urban population has bloated to over 690 million. While cities are now the economic, political, social and cultural drivers behind modern China, under Mao they were sidelined in a secondary role, primarily used as treaty ports through which Western powers wielded their supremacy and extracted Chinese resources.

Given his participation, during two of his most formative years, in a policy that damaged and impaired millions of Chinese youngsters in the 60s and 70s, Bi Fujian’s dinner party antics and anti-Mao sentiments are unsurprising. It remains to be seen whether his sincere apologies will be enough. For the moment he has been removed from Chinese television for an initial four days, pending further action.

Bi’s professional future remains highly unclear. The official Communist Party line states that Mao and his regime were 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong; what is more clear is that the Down to the Country Policy rests firmly in the latter category.