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Review: Mr. Deng Goes to Washington (China, 2015)

This documentary about Deng Xiaoping, father of China's "reform and opening", reveals as much about his country's present as its past.

By , 1 Oct 16 05:26 UTC
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In early 1979, to mark the normalization of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and United States, Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping embarked on a nine day whirlwind tour across America with stops in Washington DC, Atlanta, Houston, and Seattle. 36 years after the fact, the 2015 Chinese documentary Mr. Deng Goes to Washington commemorates this visit and offers a glimpse of not only the past, but also the present Chinese political mindset.

Although not funded by the central government, the documentary aligns with officially endorsed perspectives on Deng Xiaoping. Director Fu Hongxing ran the state-administered China Film Archive and the level of access to sources and interviewees he enjoyed, not to mention that the film was given a wide release in China, makes it unlikely Mr. Deng would stray into controversial territory. As a result, the documentary offers an admiring, unabashedly reverent depiction of Deng.

Lined up as ammunition to support the Deng Xiaoping cause are an impressive array of both Chinese and American figures. A large portion of the film is in English with Chinese subtitles, as Fu managed to snag interviews with Jimmy Carter (who received Deng during his visit), Henry Kissinger, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and a handful of other US government functionaries. Large amounts of archived American footage also appear — news reports serve to show how Deng charmed American public opinion, and clips of Deng responding to journalists demonstrate his quick wit and warmth. The film also creatively addresses those who opposed rapprochement with China. For instance, there’s an amusing minute-long aside about Barry Goldwater, who comes off as a grumpy runaway spoilsport (he conveniently flew to Arizona to “visit constituents” during Deng’s visit) against a conciliatory, avuncular Deng.

While the American interviewees already offer a positive, respectful image of Deng, the Chinese interviewees elevate him to almost demigod-status. One of them tears up with reverence as he describes Deng’s accomplishments; alongside the closing credits, Fu also includes testimonials from a litany of Chinese A-listers (Yao Ming, pianist Lang Lang, multiple CEOs) praising Deng and his legacy.

Though most of the film isn't animated, Mr. Deng Goes to Washington has a few segments that depict an animated Deng -- a first when it comes to depictions of Chinese leaders.

Though most of the film isn’t animated, Mr. Deng Goes to Washington has a few segments that show an animated Deng — a first when it comes to depictions of Chinese leaders.

After all, though Mao Zedong may be the PRC’s founder, Deng Xiaoping is the true progenitor of the modern, prosperous China we know and buy goods from today. In the aftermath of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, it was Deng who rose from the ashes and instituted “reform and opening” to liberalize China’s economy and allow for foreign investment. Today’s pragmatic, development-focused Chinese Communist Party owes much of its success and continued legitimacy to Deng’s policies and ruling methodologies — therefore, to lionize Deng is to strengthen faith in those who now rule by his example.

Another odd but unsurprising facet of Mr. Deng Goes to Washington is how it implicitly depicts the United States as a dangerous, violent place. The documentary’s biggest scoop is in rediscovering a supposed assassination plot against Deng. During the 1979 visit, a KKK member named Louis Beam tried attacking Deng in Houston but was stopped by a Secret Service agent as he reached into his jacket for what the documentary implies is a gun, but was actually red spray paint.

Despite the incident receiving virtually no coverage in either US or Chinese media at the time and having little impact on the trip’s overall trajectory, the documentary makes a mountain out of a molehill and uses it as a byway to show how dangerous Deng’s visit was and how courageous he was to undertake it. From the seed of the Beam incident, the documentary germinates a significant amount of screentime for the Secret Service agent and members of Deng’s security detail who stopped Beam. They probably talk for as long as Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski combined.

Yes,  attempted KKK assaults on Chinese leaders are bad, but the Beam incident was such a pitiful failure that trumpeting it like the documentary does just seems like a cheap and sensational way to garner attention. Indeed, upon the documentary’s release this assassination revelation apparently caused a small stir in the Chinese media.

But none of this is particularly surprising. At least from personal experience, some Chinese do maintain stereotypes of the US as a country plagued with violent crime (due to the legality of firearms), discriminatory police, and “no-go” ghettos. Mr. Deng Goes to Washington simply plays to these existing perceptions. As one of Deng’s former bodyguards says amidst copious stock footage of flashing police lights and intimidating cops, “America is a nation of 300 million people, and there are probably 100 million guns… how can we feel fully secure?”

Mr. Deng Goes to Washington has its biases and sensational moments. However, those biases are a useful and informative lens for analyzing contemporary perspectives of Deng as a positive, charismatic, and impactful political figure. Though the documentary hasn’t had a wide US release yet, I’m sure director Fu made it with global audiences at least in the back of his mind. For all its oddities, Mr. Deng ultimately adopts the wry charm and conciliation of its subject; it’s a purposefully diplomatic work of art.

Mr. Deng Goes to Washington (Chinese: 旋风九日)–Dialog in Mandarin and English. Directed by Fu Hongxing. First released May 2015. Running time 1hr 34min.

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