By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's state television is airing a serial on late leader Deng Xiaoping, a rare portrayal of a top politician that state media have trumpeted as a sign the Communist Party is easing its grip on officials' sensitive legacies.
The 48-part drama series chronicles a period between 1976 and 1984, when Deng began pushing China toward market reforms that ignited its transition into the world's second largest economy.
"In recent years, China's restricted areas of speech have obviously decreased. This series marks significant progress," the Global Times, a tabloid owned by party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said in an editorial on Monday.
But the show has prompted debate about how producers will approach sensitive internal conflicts that have more or less been air brushed out of official party accounts.
More contentious than the show's central figure is the novel appearance of actors depicting several other controversial politicians, among them the late reformist Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, who Deng ousted.
Hu's death in April 1989 sparked student protests centered on Tiananmen Square, a movement that later turned into pro-democracy demonstrations that were crushed by the military on orders from Deng on June 3 and 4 that year.
The timeframe of the series means it is likely to skirt Hu's 1987 ouster and the Tiananmen crackdown, and it is unclear how it will address, if at all, the 1981 downfall at Deng's hands of Hua Guofeng, Mao Zedong's anointed successor.
The proof would be in the showing, said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
"[The show] is perhaps a signal that events in this era are no longer as sensitive," Zhang added.
"If it turns out that they reveal certain things, then it could have desensitizing benefits," he said, referring to party battles between leaders.
In China, all broadcast media and films are pre-screened for approval and anything deemed politically sensitive is banned.
China's government and the party have a track record of covering up bad or embarrassing information. Mention of events such as the Tiananmen protests remains taboo, and strict censorship limits the public's awareness.
The myriad off-limit topics tend to funnel productions toward the drama of war, typically with programs that pit Communist armies beating back Japanese invaders. China's state administrator approved 69 anti-Japanese television series for production in 2012.
Despite the popularity of those shows, a series about Deng's struggles is something of a fresh turn of events for prime-time viewers.
Some marveled that screened episodes of the show deal with the downfall of the Gang of Four, led by Mao's widow, an event at the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution that remains one of China's worst political scandals.
"It appears it's the first time the Cultural Revolution Gang of Four has been mentioned in a television drama ... China really was in its most calamitous moments at that time. Intense!" one viewer wrote on the Weibo microblog.
Without question, the series has propaganda value to the party now led by President Xi Jinping, who has pledged to embark on his own economic reforms to reduce dependence on exports and state investment.
Produced by state broadcaster China Central Television in honor of Deng's 110th birthday in August, according to the official Xinhua news agency, the drama opens with a scene in which Deng draws water in the rain to swab his disabled son during the Cultural Revolution, when he was purged.
It comes amid a broader wave of efforts by the party to highlight Deng, with state media publishing a string of articles on the leader and previously unreleased speeches.
More than 10,000 copies of the $19.4-million production were sent to government leaders, researchers and close connections of Deng "to seek their opinions", the official English-language China Daily said, citing director Wu Ziniu.
Wu could not be reached for comment.
Hao Jian, a film critic and professor at Beijing Film Academy, said he was skeptical how far the series would go in loosening the narratives around China's ruling elite.
"I know many people are reading this as a political symbol, but I don't see it," said Hao, who was among a handful of activists detained by authorities for more than a month in May for attending a small meeting to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.
"Often, they will change the facts of history to suit propaganda goals. It's typical propaganda," Hao said.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)