Review: ‘China: Born Under the Red Flag’

Third and final seg of the PBS China series by Ambrica's Sue Williams, "Born Under the Red Flag" kicks off with Mao's death and settles into Deng Xiaoping's comparatively gentler Communist rule. Program's informative, well-constructed and, inevitably, brings the 1989 Tiananmen Square onslaught into focus; it's history in the making.

Third and final seg of the PBS China series by Ambrica’s Sue Williams, “Born Under the Red Flag” kicks off with Mao’s death and settles into Deng Xiaoping’s comparatively gentler Communist rule. Program’s informative, well-constructed and, inevitably, brings the 1989 Tiananmen Square onslaught into focus; it’s history in the making.

Williams’ script enriches the production with interviews and testimonials, with rare archival film not before seen in this country, and with her crew’s nimble camerawork. Her take on Deng seems even-handed, citing the good and the bad during the Westernization of some of China, and the development of a form of capitalism.

Extremes are everywhere, from farmers to go-go city life; from traditional Chinese music to rock ‘n’ roll; from extremists to conservatives guarding Red rules. Religion, particularly Buddhism, was revived among some people, and three brave students, approaching a great hall where the politicians gather, kneel with an unread protest petition. Unheard of in Mao’s day.

A peasant observes, “In Mao’s time, everything was so peaceful. Everyone was poor. Everyone had the same bitter life. Now there’s a huge gap between rich and poor …” The speaker lives in the interior, away from the opportunities and dangers of city existence under the gaze of aging Communist conservatives. Citizens of Shanghai, Guangzhou and such cities far from the interior were becoming wealthy as capitalism introduced color TV, refrigerators and comfortable housing in urban areas.

Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who died in February, seemed to be opening China to the world and, through his actions, the world to China. Deng, a victim during the Cultural Revolution, entertained more open expressions of political opinions and expanding thoughts. It was he who, agreeing to diplomatic relations with the West, toured the U.S., where he seemed cheered, and he encouraged commerce both ways. New markets were opening, factories were creating goods for home consumption, families were operating their own farms.

Prosperity was appearing in some quarters. Young people were investigating foreign ways, studying democracy (to a point), becoming Westernized. Manufacturing was bringing jobs and moola, and rock ‘n’ roll was rattling along the Great Wall. Rock singer Cui Jian was calling out his lyrics, posters were being plastered on walls, students were interested in European and American thinking. They were daring to demonstrate against government excesses.

But people in the south were succumbing to “spiritual assault,” as it was termed, from foreign influences. The elders raised their fading eyes, and the new China began to rein in the free souls. Deng closed his fist, making it clear that he ruled a totalitarian Communist state.

Tiananmen Square was on the way, and students are shown facing the onslaught; a boy and a girl, huddling together, stand out from the crowd. Williams underscores circumstances with observations from professionals, students, the former deputy editor of the People’s Daily as well as a veteran revolutionary who had bravely criticized the Communist Party.

Simultaneous translations of interviews hand the work immediacy, and sustained recollections scrub any doubts of how the Communist Party has sustained its harshness and brutality. And in the countryside, 100 million souls wander about seeking some kind of work. At times, China seems to be edging into its own version of capitalism; but the country remains, despite sporadic indications of democratic trappings, firmly Communistic.

The distance between wealth and poverty has been stretching apart a nation whose population has swollen to over 1.2 billion. Williams’ partner, co-producer Kathryn Pierce Dietz, notes, “Once again, there’s a sense of China’s being fragmented by huge gaps between rich and poor, by provincial rivalries, by government corruption.”

In the interior, life is still grim, often overpowering. There’s not enough of anything for farmers and peasants, and the government’s decree to ban more than one child to a family cuts deep: A farmer tells how family heads want many children to help work the farm as they grow older. Williams warns, “Since 1989, China, which we thought was becoming more like us and heading towards democracy, has been seen as a threat, an international ‘bad guy.’ ”

A worrisome concept hangs in the air: There can’t be a thorough portrait of China as a whole because there is no whole China. But Williams and Dietz have admirably turned over a variety of parts to show as much as is possible aspects of China, the largest nation on earth.

Supported by judicious, even creative, editing by John J. Martin, “Born’s” an important, vivid addition to Williams’ trilogy.

China: Born Under the Red Flag

Wed. (9), 9-11 p.m., PBS


Filmed in China by Ambrica Prods., WGBH Boston and Channel 4 TV, U.K. Exec producer, Judith Vecchione; producer-director-writer, Sue Williams; co-producer, Kathryn Pierce Dietz.


Camera, Bestor Cram, Simon Fanthorpe; editor, John P. Martin; music, Jason Kao Hwang


Narrator: Will Lyman
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