A television series intended to pay tribute to the Communist Party has drawn the ire and even disgust of some viewers for its perceived white-washing of a key part of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhiqing or Sent-down Youth, which began airing at prime time on the main China Central Television channel last month, centres on the lives of a group of young people sent to rural Heilongjiang province between 1966 and 1976.
While much of the story, written by renowned novelist Liang Xiao-sheng, has so far been devoted to the growing attachment of the main characters to the locals, their friendship under harsh conditions and awakenings of first love, the production has been criticised for glossing over how a discredited political ideology wasted the potential of an entire generation.
Some online users also criticised it as flattery to Vice-President Xi Jinping, who was part of the zhiqing generation. Xi worked in the countryside from 1969 to 1975 and wrote an article several years ago about the experience.
The largely romantic take on a painful chapter in the nation's history angered viewers and prompted calls on liberal-leaning web portals such as kdnet.net and tianya.cn for a boycott of the show. Some are urging the broadcaster to drop the 44-episode series.
'This is a drama full of lies and praise for evil,' one commentator wrote.
'We cannot accept such a drama heaping praise on such a disaster,' another said.
About 20 million students were forced out of cities on the premise it would cleanse them of privileged attitudes and they would learn values from villagers and farmers. But sending them to remote, unfamiliar areas deprived them of the chance to go to university and into challenging careers, essentially exiling them as China's 'lost generation'.
Guo Xiaolin, who spent more than 10 years on a farm in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang, said he was disgusted with the romantic take of the show after watching just a few minutes. It failed to put the story into a wider social context or address the ramifications of what was, ultimately, an engineered social disaster.
'It's absurd and insensitive to turn part of a tragic history into an upbeat, mainstream production paying tribute to the party. The movement and the revolution couldn't have been more wrong,' the 64-year-old poet said. 'We shouldn't have been dumped in the countryside for years with little to do at a time when we were full of energy and aspirations.'
Jiao Ying, a retired office worker, spent three years in a labour re-education camp near Xinhai, or Khanka Lake, on the border with Russia in 1969. She says she would never expect a mainstream show like Zhiqing to be faithful to history. 'Those characters and their lives on the show bear little resemblance to us and the harsh reality we endured back then,' she said.
After her time in the camp Jiao moved to join her exiled parents in Henan province, where she studied at a vocational school and went on to become a railway worker. She was allowed back to Beijing in 1976.
The series was produced by Shandong Film and TV, and during a press conference for its premiere, the director of Shandong Radio, Film and TV Administration, Liu Changyun, conveyed an endorsement from Liu Yunshan, the Communist Party's top propaganda chief, for the drama's correct handling of the subject and its upbeat tone.
The director said Zhiqing was intended to be inspirational and to teach young people to maintain a fighting spirit even under the harsh conditions that the 'sent-down youths' were put through.
In an interview with Xinhua on Thursday, Liang said he did not try to gloss over the revolution. He wanted to show young people they could still hold out hope for love and friendship even under extreme hardship.
The controversy comes amid a marked nostalgia for the Mao Zedong era and a revival of the leftist school of thought. Former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who some reports say may have been an active member of the Red Guards during the revolution, drew national attention for his 'red culture' revival, which included initiatives to encourage students to work in the countryside. There has also been a growing presence online of web portals dedicating to leftist doctrine in recent years.
Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology, said celebrating such a disastrous movement in a mainstream production amounted to a betrayal of the millions of lives lost and the many more people purged during the period.
'Such distortion of history is extremely dangerous, as it could mislead the young generation in their view of that part of history. Even worse, it could prevent the country from moving forward with much-needed political reform,' Hu said.