BEIJING -- China's state broadcaster is investigating one of its hosts after a video of him insulting Mao Zedong was leaked online, causing a stir and rekindling debate on the complicated legacy of the father of communist China.
China Central Television said talent show host Bi Fujian would face serious investigation because his jokes have had a "severe social impact."
In the home video that circulated widely online before censors removed it this week, Bi sings a song about Communist Party-led soldiers battling bandits in northeastern China in the 1940s. To the laughter of guests at a dinner, Bi adds his own commentary in a speaking voice between lines.
When the lyrics refer to Mao, Bi describes the revolutionary hero with a known Chinese vulgar phrase that includes a reference to female genitals, and says "he has ruined us all." Bi also mocks the soldiers, suggesting their battles were pointless and the song's claim of victory boastful.
The incident renewed debate both on free speech and about Mao, who many Chinese feel should be held responsible for disastrous periods such the 1959-1961 famine and the chaos unleashed by the decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1966 when Mao appealed directly to the masses to root out reactionaries.
Wang Cailiang, a Beijing lawyer, says the leaking of the private clip and its aftermath was worrisome. "When a dinner becomes a set-up, who can be free from fears?" Wang said.
Though some of Mao's policies have been officially critiqued, the ruling Communist Party can hardly renounce him because it has built much of its legitimacy upon the imagery surrounding the revolutionary leader. A huge portrait of him still hangs in the heart of Beijing.
A small but vocal slice of the population still worships Mao, while many Chinese pay lip service to him and his ideology. The cover from such pretense was blown off when Bi - a host for one of the key mouthpieces for the party's policies - made his apparently candid and irreverent remarks.
"Everyone is a victim of Mao, but no one dares to say it," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and independent commentator. "Yet in private settings, even those senior officials working for the system have no good word for him. This political system breeds duplicity and schizophrenia."
State-run newspapers have responded with harsh criticism of Bi, saying his comments - even if made privately - were improper for such a public figure.
"It's extremely unfitting of Bi's status that such lewd words to mock the people's leader and people's heroes should have come out of him - a Communist Party member and someone who has claimed to have served in the armed forces," wrote the state-run China Youth Daily in a Wednesday editorial.
The China Youth Daily chastised Bi for his lack of integrity. "You owe everyone in China an apology," the newspaper said in an editorial.
Bi also received some strong support online, with many people defending his right to speak his mind privately and condemning whoever leaked the video.
Zha Jianguo, a dissident who has recounted some of the violence under Mao's reign, said Bi has done nothing wrong.
"To say a despot has ruined us all, how can that be an insult? How could that be irreverent?" Zha said.
Mao was the man who transformed China, a heroic leader, but the real Mao did horrendous things.
"Mao was responsible for well over 70 million deaths of the Chinese in peacetime, and he was as evil as Hitler or Stalin," author Jung Chang told CBS' "Sunday Morning" in 2008, "and he did as much damage to mankind as Hitler and Stalin."