Despite China’s position as a world superpower and the amount of coverage received during the Summer Olympics in Beijing, director Rob Coldstream feels that in the West, most don’t know much about Chinese history beyond Chairman Mao and Tiananmen Square. Coldstream and UK producer/ Ten Alps company, Brook Lapping, sought to tell the story of how the country went from being one of the poorest nations in the world, on the verge of anarchy, to being a superpower in such a short span of time.
Whereas most people outside of China have heard of Chairman Mao, very few have heard of Deng Xiaoping, his successor who opened China up to capitalism and the free market. Thus, the ambition for China’s Capitalist Revolution was to ‘tell the political story from a Chinese point of view,’ says Coldstream.
This turned out to be a hard task. Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to get members of the Communist party to speak on camera, but the team behind the doc felt it wouldn’t be complete without someone going on the record. In the end they secured interviews with senior officials, Xiaoping’s speech writer and the editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper who has never spoken on camera before. But obtaining these interviews took a couple of years and then, ultimately, it took nine months to shoot the film, starting in May 2008.
The most interesting component of the film, to Coldstream, is the part about Tiananmen Square because it’s so different from what he’s heard in the past. ‘The traditional story we tell ourselves in the West is what we like to hear because it makes us feel good about being free and democratic,’ he says. That story focuses on the students who wanted to end communism and have Western-style democracy, but were attacked by their own government. As China’s Capitalist Revolution shows, the protests had very little to do with democracy.
‘They didn’t really want Western democracy,’ says Coldstream. During the time they spent in China, Coldstream and the Brook Lapping team found that it was the corruption that occurred after Xiaoping introduced economic change and put money into the hands of the people that they were protesting against.
‘They wanted fairer government, jobs and housing, and it wasn’t really about, ‘We want to get rid of the Communist party,’ at all,’ says Coldstream. ‘But it built up into such a chaotic situation where people were demonstrating all over China and the students started fighting amongst each other. It’s a much more tragic and complicated picture and not as simple as saying the Communists were bad and the students were good.’
The 1 x 90-minute doc is narrated by David Suchet (Poirot) and will air June 20 on BBC2.