Why Chinese Political Humor is Spreading Online

The World’s Mary Kay Magistad reports on the rise of political humor in China and the role of the Internet in spreading subversive messages through satire. Listen here:

“When the situation is getting tougher, the humor is getting stronger. That has been always the case,” said Xiao Qiang, who runs China Digital Times, a website that follows news and web trends in China. He said in this past year, as Chinese authorities have tried to step up control in the wake of pro-democracy revolutions in the Middle East and Northern Africa, China’s online humor has, if anything, gotten sharper.

“Because especially when it comes to political and social matters, where there’s always a sense of repression there, speaking truth to power requires a lot of courage, and there’s risk involved,” Xiao said. “But humor can smooth that out.”

When two high-speed trains collided last summer, a former journalist named Liu Dongdong took a Chinese rock classic and rewrote the lyrics to create a satirical critique of government mismanagement – of the hi-speed train project, and of the accident.

The song quickly got millions of hits.

“These days in China, people are under a lot of pressure, and sometimes they feel helpless,” said Liu Dongdong. “I hope doing these songs helps relieve some of that pressure – and maybe even gets a little attention from the authorities so they do something about the problems.”

As a sidebar to the report, Magistad writes on her blog about her interview with satirical singer Chuanzi, who found the singer’s behavior, often at the behest of his professional handlers, to be completely incongruous with his sharp and witty work:

“I’m poking fun at the difficulties in our life, the difficulties we need to face,” he said. “By poking fun, we gain a certain amount of momentum or a certain amount of power to change our lives. But the system, I don’t think we can change… I think I’m a very small potato. I think I’m too weak by myself to change things. But if we stick together – we artists – it’s possible to change the society, and even the system, and to push it forward.”


Chuanzi’s agent was becoming agitated. She took her mobile phone and stepped out of the restaurant. She came back, and pulled Chuanzi aside. When he rejoined the interview, it was like a politically correct clone had taken his place. I asked what needed to change in the system to bring about the social change he desired.

“I think this is a question for the State Council (China’s main governing body) and the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature) to resolve,” he said. “We ordinary people have no right to speak on this.”

Read more about Chuanzi via CDT, including translations of two of his recent songs, Zheng Qianhua and People of July.

[This post was updated on Jan. 10, 10:10 pm PST to include Magistad’s radio report.]


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