Mr. Deng Goes to Washington Shows Politics Was Not Always This Terrible

Released first in 2015, historical documentary Mr Deng Goes to Washington will screen in Ireland as part of the China Ireland International Film Festival. Watching my screener in 2019, I was transported back to the 70’s. This was to the nine days when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the US, as well as a time when the notion of state visits between global superpowers did not fill me with dread.

Through archival footage, animated recreations of events and current day interviews with relevant parties, Mr Deng re-examines the importance of those nine days for the two countries. Relations had been tense between China and the US during the Cold War. After all, America had not formally recognised the Communist People’s Republic of China until January 1, 1979.

The documentary makes the case that Vice Premier Deng’s visit to the US just weeks later served two major functions. From a social perspective, the Chinese leader’s charm, intelligence and willingness to immerse himself in US culture – he participated in 80 events during the trip – challenged the United States’ perception of China as an enemy or rival.

It also argues the progressive (in terms of ideas of socialism and free enterprise) Vice Premier’s talks with US President Jimmy Carter led to a turning point in the relationship between the two superpowers. From there, they initiated a series of important, high-level exchanges – ones which resulted in many bilateral agreements in terms of scientific, technological, and cultural interchange, as well as trade relations. In 1978, the number of travellers between China and the US was less than 10,000 people. Now, perhaps as a result of the Vice Premier, it’s close to 4 million.

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The documentary was made to commemorate the 35th anniversary of China and the United States establishing diplomatic relations. You can tell as it eschews complex analysis for a broad celebratory tone. The documentary’s talking heads all speak warm and kindly of the Vice Premier. And quickly, it becomes apparent the filmmakers feel the same. This is because the movie’s narrator can often be heard praising him as triumphant music swirls in the background.

This could be annoying, feeling like something for classrooms rather than cinemas, but the film is assembled with great skill. The documentary never lags in pace. Director Fu Hongxing capitalises on mining as much drama out of the nine-day visit as possible. For example, he cuts so speedily between recreated b-roll and archival footage of protesters to Deng’s visit at one point. This is to build real suspense as the doc explores death threats the Vice Premier had received before his trip.

There’s also some amazing old footage of the title subject. Dressed in a Mao suit, he looks simultaneously out-of-place but delighted to visit America’s most iconic locations such as the Johnson Space Centre in Heuston and a real rodeo in Texas. These scenes really help humanise a person discussed in such mythic terms throughout the documentary. This is never more so than when its revealed towards the film’s end that the 75-year-old Deng had been suffering a huge cold throughout the trip, perhaps as a result of pushing himself too hard. He knew how important it was to make a good impression.

All these elements, juxtaposed too with beautiful animated sequences – imagining what happened in moments when cameras weren’t present – help paint a picture of a seemingly increasingly rare type of politician. One who carries himself with class and honour. Those in power today should watch and take note.

Mr Deng Goes to Washington will screen at Parnell Street’s Cineworld Thursday, June 27 as part of the China Ireland International Film Festival. There will be a Q&A with the director and the producer post-screening.

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